Astronomers have spotted the most distant supermassive black hole ever seen in our Universe — a behemoth that’s nearly a billion times more massive than our Sun. This is no ordinary black hole either, but an active one known as a quasar that’s surrounded by a super bright, highly energetic disk of swirling gas and dust. And its discovery could help scientists learn more about what conditions were like when the Universe was still quite young.

The object — detailed in studies published today in Nature and the Astrophysical Journal Letters — gives us a great snapshot of the past. It’s so far away that its light has taken around 13.1 billion years to reach us. And since the Big Bang is thought to have occurred 13.8 billion years ago, astronomers are seeing this black hole as it looked when the Universe was just 690 million years old. On the cosmological timescale, that’s basically when the Universe was a mere toddler.

Scientists aren’t quite sure when the first stars formed after the Big Bang, but studying the gases in this quasar can tell us a bit about how the Universe was evolving at that time. And the search is still on to find more distant quasars, possibly ones that existed at an even earlier time. The more quasars we find, the better portrait astronomers can paint of the early Universe.

“Already we can learn a lot about the early Universe with this one, but of course you want more,” Bram Venemans, a black hole researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy who was part of the quasar’s discovery, tells The…

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