"This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form", said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
However, black holes that formed in the early universe are different. It is surrounded by neutral hydrogen, indicating that it is from the period called the epoch of reionization, when the universe's first light sources turned on. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.
"What transitions the universe from being neutral to ionized is starlight from the first galaxies", he said.
Simcoe and postdoc Monica L. Turner are the MIT co-authors of a paper detailing the results, published today in the journal Nature. He was joined by another researcher from MIT and researchers from several other institutions. Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC led the team of astronomers that made this discovery, using Carnegie's Magellan telescopes in Chile.
The Bañados quasar is also interesting, because it is from the time known as the epoch of reionization, when the universe emerged from its dark ages. FIRE is a spectrometer that classifies objects based on their infrared spectra.
Since the universe is constantly expanding, distant objects are moving away from us, which stretches out the wavelength of the light they emit.
But most galaxies we've seen from that era are very, very small.
Still on the lookout, astronomers are uncertain how close they'll get to the actual beginning of time, 13.8 billion years ago.
The astronomer who found the unusual black hole said that there's no way of explaining how a black hole would be able to pick up such mass, and that it might challenge out current understandings of how black holes form.
He said he suspects that despite its precocious youth, J1342+0928 eventually settled down to life at a more measured pace, becoming a more typical supermassive black hole at the center of a large elliptical galaxy.
The newly identified quasar appears to inhabit a pivotal moment in the universe's history. As the universe expanded in size, those particles cooled down, and as they did they formed into a neutral hydrogen gas during which it was completely dark. Once the universe became reionized, photons could travel freely throughout space, thus the universe became transparent to light.
At a distance of about 13 billion lightyears, the most distant supermassive black hole known so far has been spotted by an global team of astronomers. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the further back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. That helped scientists estimate that the stars turned on roughly when it began its journey - about 696 million years after the big bang.
"This is a very exciting discovery", he said. "We now have the most accurate measurements to date of when the first stars were turning on".
Researchers had previously speculated that to exist so soon after the Big Bang, certain conditions must have existed that allowed for the formation of supermassive black holes. It's thought that black holes grow by accreting, or absorbing mass from the surrounding environment. They are regions of space where gravity is so strong that nothing-not even light-can escape.