It's almost as far into space — and back in time — as we can see.
It's a black hole.
A big one. Some 800 million times the mass of our own Sun.
It's also so far away, it must have been chewing its way through the assemble gas clouds and early stars of the infant universe itself.
It shouldn't exist.
It lived at a time shortly after clouds of energetic particles cooled into nitrogen gas, when the universe was only just inventing the idea of stars.
It had reached its size just 690 million years after the point beyond which there is nothing. The most dominant scientific theory of recent years describes that point as the Big Bang — a spontaneous eruption of reality as we know it out of a quantum singularity.
But another idea has recently been gaining weight: that the universe goes through periodic expansions and contractions — resulting in a "Big Bounce".
And the existence of early black holes has been predicted to be a key telltale as to whether or not the idea may be valid.
The science journal Nature this week reports the discovery of a quasar — the brightest objects in space.
A quasar is believed to be the superheated plasma emitted as stars, gas clouds and interstellar rubble get ripped down to component particles as they swirl about a supermassive black hole's event horizon.
It's been designated ULAS J1342+0928.
This one is very big. To get to its size — 800 million times more mass than our Sun — it must have swallowed a lot of stuff.
But that's not the most unusual thing.
Black holes are believed to form when a star over a certain size burns up all its fuel, and collapses in on itself. They become supermassive by merging with other black holes and devouring other stars.
It must have eaten an awful lot in a very short time (in astronomical terms) to get to that size.
As far as we understand it, the universe simply wasn't old enough at that time to generate such a monster.
Or some other process must be behind its existence.
BEYOND THE DAWN
Astronomers use a technique called redshift to measure an interstellar object's age.
That's how much light gets distorted into the red spectrum over time as it moves away from the viewer.
And everything in the universe is moving away from us.
Thus the theory of 'inflation' — that the universe is getting bigger.
Redshift defines time-space locations as units.
Before now, only one has been identified as further/older than redshift 7: ULAS J1120+0641 at a redshift of 7.09.
This one has a redshift of 7.54.
It's a number that represents a universe aged only 690 million years old — just 5 per cent of its current age.
"Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth," says the astronomer who discovered it, Carnegie Institution for Science researcher Eduardo Bañados.
So how could such a supermassive black hole — of a size that suggests it must be much, much older than 690 million years — get there?
Science loves a challenge.
Is it evidence of a Big Bounce, where black holes from a universe from beyond our dawn of time somehow survived the contraction and recoil that produced the one we live in?
While the Big Bounce theory may suddenly sound a bit better, there may yet be undiscovered events in the early universe that could cause the rupture of time and space that produces a black hole.
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