Ultra-rare black hole ancestor detected at the dawn of the universe

An artist's impression of a transitioning red quasar -- a bright, compact object shrouded in clouds of red dust
An artist's impression of a transitioning red quasar, wrapped in hot gas from the beginning of time (Image credit: ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann)

Astronomers have discovered a dusty, red object 13 billion light-years from Earth that may be the earliest known ancestor of a supermassive black hole.

The ancient object shows characteristics that fall between dusty, star-forming galaxies and brightly glowing black holes known as quasars, according to the authors of a new study, published April 13 in the journal Nature. Born just 750 million years after the Big Bang, during an epoch called the "cosmic dawn," the object appears to be the first direct evidence of an early galaxy weaving stardust into the foundations of a supermassive black hole.

Objects like these, known as transitioning red quasars, have been theorized to exist in the early universe, but they have never been observed — until now.

Related: The universe may have been filled with supermassive black holes at the dawn of time

"The discovered object connects two rare populations of celestial objects, namely dusty starbursts and luminous quasars," lead study author Seiji Fujimoto, a postdoctoral fellow at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement. "[It] thereby provides a new avenue toward understanding the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early universe."

Twinkle, twinkle, little quasar

Quasars (short for "quasi-stellar objects") are extremely bright objects powered by supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. With masses millions to tens of billions of times greater than that of Earth's sun, these monster black holes suck in everything around them at blinding speed. Gas spiraling into these black holes heats up due to friction, creating a bright glow that's comparable to starlight.

Prior research has shown that quasars existed within the first 700 million years of the universe, the study authors wrote; however, it's unclear exactly how these supermassive objects formed so quickly after the Big Bang. Simulations suggest that some sort of fast-growing transition phase occurs in dusty, star-dense galaxies.

"Theorists have predicted that these black holes undergo an early phase of rapid growth: a dust-reddened compact object emerges from a heavily dust-obscured starburst galaxy," study co-author Gabriel Brammer, an associate professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, said in the statement.

In their new paper, the researchers claim to have detected one of these rare transitional objects — officially named GNz7q — while studying an ancient, star-forming galaxy with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The team caught the early galaxy in the midst of a stellar baby boom, with the galaxy seemingly churning out new stars 1,600 times faster than the Milky Way does today. All those newborn stars produced an immense amount of heat, which warmed the galaxy's ambient gas and caused it to glow brightly in infrared wavelengths. The galaxy became so hot, in fact, that its dust shines brighter than any other known object from the cosmic dawn period, the researchers said.

Amid that brightly glowing dust, the researchers detected a single red point of light — a large, compact object tinged by the enormous fog of dust around it. According to the researchers, this red dot's luminosity and color perfectly match the predicted characteristics of a transitioning red quasar.

"The observed properties are in excellent agreement with the theoretical simulations and suggest that GNz7q is the first example of the transitioning, rapid growth phase of black holes at the dusty star core, an ancestor of the later supermassive black hole," Brammer said.

The team probably didn't just stumble upon this object by dumb luck; there are likely many, many others like it just waiting to be discovered by telescopes that can peer even further back, into the earliest eras of the universe. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Dec. 25, 2021, will be able to hunt for these elusive objects with much greater clarity than Hubble, the researchers wrote, hopefully shedding a bit more light onto the dusty cosmic dawn.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.