UCSB part of discovery of universe’s second most distant quasar
Last spring, researchers discovered the second most distant quasar in the universe, opening up a new wave of questions surrounding black hole formation and the timeline of the creation of the universe.
In a publication submitted June 24, 2020, the team of astronomers announced this discovery of a luminous quasar powered by a supermassive black hole twice as massive as the current quasar redshift record holder and about a billion times the mass of the sun.
This giant’s scientific name is J1007+2115 at z = 7.515, but the researchers named it “Pōniuā’ena.” That’s a native Hawaiian name meaning “unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded with brilliance.”
The scientists, one of whom teaches physics at UCSB, utilized telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory and Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, some of the most expensive and powerful telescopes in the world.
UCSB professor and cosmologist Joseph Hennawi coordinated and executed the observations in collaboration with the team, in a search he said has been ongoing for a decade.
A quasar by definition is a galaxy.
But the massive amount of light emitted from it is matter falling into a supermassive black hole. They’re some of the brightest objects in the universe that shine for consistent periods of time.
When the scientists observed this quasar at such a tremendous distance, like other objects this far away, they were actually observing what it looked like 13 billion years ago in the time it took the light to travel to Earth,
Perhaps more significantly than the redshift record holder, the scientists observed this quasar so far back in time that it begs the question, was 700 million years enough time after the Big Bang for this to form?
Professor Hennawi said he and his team don’t fully understand how it was formed so massive so early.
“If you met a 3-year-old who could suddenly play violin better than anybody else on the planet, you’d wonder, how is that possible? How could this person in just three years have learned so much?” he said.
“In this case, you find this very, very young, supermassive object, and it’s the same question,” he said. “How could it have grown to be so massive so quickly? The most plausible way out is to argue that you just started from a much bigger thing.”
Finding a second quasar this far away suggests quasars aren’t so hard to find or uncommon, according to Professor Hennawi. These discoveries lead scientists closer to solving one of the biggest puzzles in cosmology: that of the “Epoch of Reionization.” This is the period where scientists believe stars, galaxies and black holes truly formed, currently theorized at 400 million years after the Big Bang.
“I think in the next five to seven years, we’ll actually be able to scale things up to where we have hundreds of these things,” he said of quasars. “Then, with that kind of data, we’ll not only be able to essentially definitively say when this Reionization Epoch took place, but we’ll also have a lot more information on how these black holes could have grown so massively so early.”
The cosmologist cited the Euclid Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope as two items that will propel and revolutionize this research area, collecting what he calls “exquisite and unprecedented quality data on such objects.”
In addition, Professor Hennawi said the physics department at UCSB is working on a way to make finding these objects in space easier and faster, using artificial intelligence, machine learning and computational mathematical techniques.
Although Professor Hennawi was also involved in the redshift record holder’s discovery, he said the observation of Pōniuā’ena was no less invigorating for him.
“We’ve been looking for this for a decade with no luck,” he said. “Seeing what the data looked like coming off of the telescope was unbelievable.”
The UCSB professor added that there was a significant intersection between their role in the discovery and Hawaii’s role in cosmic discovery.
“We can use this discovery hot off the telescope at the cutting edge of science to also play an educational role that interfaces in an interesting way with native culture,” he said. “Native Hawaiians view the summit of Mauna Kea as a sacred place, and it’s also sacred to us in the sense that this is where our big discoveries are made.
“We feel very privileged to be able to collect data from that mountain and are really excited about the opportunities for educational and community outreach.”