Astronomers have peered back some 13 billion years to a time just after the Big Bang. Therefore, discovering a swarm of supermassive black holes.

Astronomers from Japan, Taiwan, and Princeton University were hunting quasars. So, they found 83 of them powered by supermassive black holes from a time when the universe was less than 10 percent of its present age.

The research appears in a series of five papers published in The Astrophysical Journal and the Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

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Quasars are extremely remote and bright sources of energy. These incredible sources of light radiate more energy at once than 100 galaxies combined.

Michael Strauss, a professor of astrophysics at Princeton, dubbed the study of these quasars and black holes one of the biggest challenges faced by scientists today.

“It is remarkable that such massive dense objects were able to form so soon after the Big Bang,” said Prof. Strauss, who is one of the co-authors of the study. “Understanding how black holes can form in the early universe, and just how common they are, is a challenge for our cosmological models.”

The mass of supermassive black holes equals hundreds of millions or even billions of Suns. We often find them at the center of most galaxies, including our Milky Way.

It is still unclear when they first formed, and how many existed in the distant early universe.

Even though black holes themselves are invisible, they become pretty obvious when gas accretes onto it, causing it to shine as a “quasar.”

The Discovery

The research team used data taken with a cutting-edge instrument, “Hyper Suprime-Cam” (HSC), mounted on the Subaru Telescope of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. The telescope lies on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. HSC has a gigantic field-of-view—1.77 degrees across, or seven times the area of the full moon—mounted on one of the largest telescopes in the world. The HSC team is surveying the sky over the course of 300 nights of telescope time, spread over five years.

The team selected distant quasar candidates from the sensitive HSC survey data. They then carried out an intensive observational campaign to obtain spectra of those candidates, using three telescopes: the Subaru Telescope; the Gran Telescopio Canarias on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, Spain; and the Gemini South Telescope in Chile.

The scientists involved in the research now hope to find even more supermassive black holes from the universe’s distant past.

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Thumbnail image: One of the most distant quasars, as seen by the Hyper Suprime-Cam, is 13.05 billion light-years away. Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan