Quasars are extremely old, outrageously luminous balls of radiation that were prevalent in the early Universe. Each is thought to have been fueled at its core by an incredibly powerful supermassive black hole. The most recent discovery (which carries the romantic name ULAS J1120+0641) is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First of all, its supermassive black hole weighs approximately two billion solar masses – an impressive feat of gravity so soon after the Big Bang. It is also incredibly bright, given its great distance. “Objects that lie at such large distance are almost impossible to find in visible-light surveys because their light is stretched by the expansion of the universe,” said Dr. Simon Dye of the University of Nottingham, a member of the team that discovered the object. “This means that by the time their light gets to Earth, most of it ends up in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.” Due to these effects, only about 100 visible quasars exist in the sky at redshifts higher than 7.
Up until recently, the most distant quasar observed was at a redshift of 6.4; but thanks to this discovery, astronomers can probe 100 million years further into the history of the Universe than ever before. Careful study of ULAS J1120+0641 and its properties will enable scientists to learn more about galaxy formation and supermassive black hole growth in early epochs. The research was published in the June 30 issue of Nature.
For further reading, see related paper by Chris Willot, Monster in the Early Universe