Astronomers have discovered and analysed the most distant source of radio emission known to date.
The source is what scientists call a radio-loud quasar – a bright object with powerful jets emitting at radio wavelengths – that is so far away its light has taken 13 billion years to reach Earth.
Researchers say the discovery could help them understand the early universe.
Quasars are very bright objects at the centre of some galaxies, and are powered by supermassive black holes.
As the black hole consumes the surrounding gas, energy is released, making them visible to astronomers even when they are very far away.
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According to the study published in The Astrophysical Journal, the newly discovered quasar, nicknamed P172+18, is so distant that light from it has travelled for about 13 billion years to reach Earth.
It is seen as it was when the universe was just around 780 million years old.
This is the first time researchers have been able to identify the tell-tale signatures of radio jets in a quasar this early on in the history of the universe.
Only about 10% of quasars – which astronomers classify as radio-loud – have jets, which shine brightly at radio frequencies.
P172+18 is powered by a black hole about 300 million times bigger than the Sun.
Chiara Mazzucchelli, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, led the discovery together with Eduardo Banados of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
She said: “The black hole is eating up matter very rapidly, growing in mass at one of the highest rates ever observed.”
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Astronomers think there is a link between the rapid growth of supermassive black holes and the powerful radio jets spotted in quasars such as P172+18.
The jets are thought to be capable of disturbing the gas around the black hole, increasing the rate at which gas falls in.
Studying radio-loud quasars can provide insights into how black holes in the early universe grew to their supermassive sizes so quickly after the Big Bang.
P172+18 was first recognised as a far-away quasar at the Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
Mr Banados said: “As soon as we got the data, we inspected it by eye, and we knew immediately that we had discovered the most distant radio-loud quasar known so far.”
Researchers believe this radio-loud quasar could be the first of many to be found, perhaps at even larger cosmological distances.
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