Most distant “angry monster” brightest in early Universe

[Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser] The BBC reports on the discovery of the most distant quasar yet seen, ULAS J1120+0641.  An “angry monster” 12.9 billion light-years away – a mere 770 million years after the Big Bang.  Before the process of re-ionization was completed.  As the BBC report notes

The light from ULAS J1120+0641 displays the characteristic signature of neutral gas, indicating that, at 770 million years after the Big Bang, the process of re-ionization had some way to go before the process was complete.

Dr Mortlock told BBC News: “This is the first time we have seen a quasar that we are sure is sitting in a significantly neutral Universe – it might be 10%, it might be 50% of the hydrogen is neutral – but all the other ones we’ve seen, even a 100 million years later, had a fraction of the neutral gas we see in our quasar. Others we’ve detected had more like 1% or 0.1% of neutral hydrogen. So we see this quasar before the epoch of re-ionization has ended.”

What is a puzzle is the scale of the black hole driving this quasar. It has a mass two billion times that of the Sun.

Its detection is one of a number lately that have indicated the presence many super-massive objects in the early cosmos. Scientists are struggling to explain how these objects could have evolved so big, so fast.

“It is safe to say that the existence of this quasar will be giving some theorists sleepless nights,” observed Chris Willott from the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre in a News and Views article in Nature.

And here’s the ESOcast video on the discovery. [Video credit: ESO]

The ESO press release adds

“It took us five years to find this object,” explains Bram Venemans, one of the authors of the study. “We were looking for a quasar with redshift higher than 6.5. Finding one that is this far away, at a redshift higher than 7, was an exciting surprise. By peering deep into the reionisation era, this quasar provides a unique opportunity to explore a 100-million-year window in the history of the cosmos that was previously out of reach.”

The distance to the quasar was determined from observations made with the FORS2 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and instruments on the Gemini North Telescope [5]. Because the object is comparatively bright it is possible to take a spectrum of it (which involves splitting the light from the object into its component colours). This technique allowed the astronomers to find out quite a lot about the quasar.

These observations showed that the mass of the black hole at the centre of ULAS J1120+0641 is about two billion times that of the Sun. This very high mass is hard to explain so early on after the Big Bang. Current theories for the growth of supermassive black holes predict a slow build-up in mass as the compact object pulls in matter from its surroundings.

“We think there are only about 100 bright quasars with redshift higher than 7 over the whole sky,” concludes Daniel Mortlock, the leading author of the paper. “Finding this object required a painstaking search, but it was worth the effort to be able to unravel some of the mysteries of the early Universe.”

Indeed.  Of course, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope [VLT] array on top of Cerro Paranal in Chile’s Atacama Desert does have the most wondrous skies.  [Video credit: ESO/S. Guisard ( ESO/José Francisco Salgado (]

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  • Great as usual.
    On a personal aside, my nephew, Dr. Richard McMahon, an astronomer at Cambridge once held the record for discovering the most distant quasar. He made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

  • Greenflag

    Thanks Pete for another welcome if temporary escape from the Grecian Black Hole among others currently in vogue:)

    And congrats JC on your record holding nephew 🙂

    ‘Scientists are struggling to explain how these objects could have evolved so big, so fast.’

    Perhaps they were there all along at the time of the singularity or should I say singularities and got ‘mixed up’ or just went with the flow in the initial expansion and in their new abode got off to an ‘early ‘start?

    I expect this daft question will be put down mercifully by Pete with his usual aplomb .

    As quasars are not singularities there being 100 or so at the edge of THIS universe could the notion of just one singularity n time be false ?

  • Mark McGregor


    I’m often told ‘there are no stupid questions’ – so humour me.

    That photo of a ‘quasar 12.9 billion light years aways’: How much is that computer generated on the basis of asumption and theory and how much of it is an actual image?

    I’m not convinced we can get true images like that for such distant objects/events.

  • Pete Baker


    I’m not sure I understand the question. 😉


    If you move the cursor over the image you’ll see that it’s labelled as an “Artist’s impression”.

    But if you follow the ESO press release link you can find an image of the actual quasar using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey. It’s the faint red dot near the centre of this image.

  • earther

    I’m not sure I’ll understand Greenflag’s question either but I’ll give it a try anyway:

    So far as I know, whether there was one or more “singularity” is squarely in the realm of metaphysics. And I don’t know of any evidence could be marshalled for or against the hypothesis according to which we can observe matter which is the product of other “singularities”.
    I don’t know that huge ancient quasars will be very hard to explain within the simple framework of a single “singularity” to which people are naturally drawn. The article only says that current theories don’t predict them. Being proved wrong by the universe are what most theories are for (see other, less cosmological, posts by Pete Baker). Theories can usually get adjusted in light of new information. Sometimes it becomes clear fundamental assumptions have to be thrown out but that’s not usually the case.
    This stuff is very speculative anyway. I wouldn’t put too much weight on the prevailing theories at this point. There’s lots of interesting data that’s been acquired and lots of brillant interpretations but the nature of the most general questions a lot of people are asking naturally leads to fanciful speculation.

    On the matter of “time”, I think it’s safe to say there has long been strong evidence that Einstein was on to something and that, quite outside of cosmological speculation, there’s a lot more than one “time” in practice.
    Then again, you can always decree that a particular “time” is the One True Time. True, if there’s a single “singularity”, you have an obvious candidate for the One True Time but if the products of several “singularities” are interacting somehow, they’re necessarily doing so in some kind of context which should have its own One True Time even if we can’t pin it down.