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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 18:35 GMT
Most distant black hole weighed
By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter

The mass of the most distant black hole yet known has been determined.

CREDIT: NASA Education and Public Outreach at Sonoma State University - Aurore Simonnet
Heart of a quasar: a black hole is hidden in gas and dust
It weighs in at one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) times that of the Earth.

Put another way, it is the mass of three billion Suns.

This huge number is not unusual for a black hole but what is surprising is that such a massive structure formed so early in the history of the Universe.

It is 13 billion light-years away from Earth, so what we are seeing now gives a picture of the Universe when it was very youthful.

The huge black hole is at the centre of what is known as a quasar.

These extremely luminous objects are most probably galaxies that contain gigantic black holes.

Baby Universe

The mass of the black hole at the heart of quasar (SDSS J1148+5251) was calculated by measuring a characteristic feature in its infrared light spectrum and comparing it with closer quasars.

What are quasars?
Bright and distant objects that were more common in the early Universe
A quasar emits a huge amount of energy - up to 10,000 times that of the whole Milky Way galaxy
They are just one type of the many active galaxies now visible to us
The result confirms that huge black holes did exist in the Universe when it was only 6% of its current age.

Matt Jarvis of Oxford University, UK, is one of the scientists behind the discovery.

He said the work helped astronomers trace "the evolution of the relationship between the black hole mass and the galaxy mass over the entire history of the Universe".

Ross McLure, from the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh, UK, added: "This quasar pinpoints the first massive structures to have formed in the Universe.

"It confirms predictions that such huge black holes do exist so early in the Universe, but they are rare."

Swallowing matter

Chris Done, a physicist at Durham University, UK, said black holes were typically a few billion times the mass of our Sun but it was a surprise to find one so massive so far away.

She told BBC News Online: "With it being so young, it hasn't had a lot of time, yet it has already collapsed into a black hole that is perfectly normal compared with what we see around us now."

Richard McMahon, of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, UK, described the finding as "very significant".

"This massive black hole existed 8,000 million years before the Earth formed but it was as massive as most black holes known in the Universe," he said.

The observations were made by the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii by a team of astronomers from the UK and Canada.

The research, led by Chris Willott, is published in the electronic edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Dust from dawn of time
12 Apr 02 |  Science/Nature
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07 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature
The big and the bizarre
17 Feb 03 |  Denver 2003

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