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Scientists discover earliest quasar yet

An artist’s concept of the brightest quasar yet found, fueled by a black hole two billion times more massive than our sun. An artist’s concept of the brightest quasar yet found, fueled by a black hole two billion times more massive than our sun. (European Southern Observatory via Associated Press)
Associated Press / June 30, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — A team of European astronomers, glimpsing far back in time, says it has detected the most distant and earliest quasar yet.

Light from this brilliant, starlike object took nearly 13 billion years to reach Earth, meaning the quasar existed when the universe was only 770 million years old. The discovery ranks as the brightest object ever found.

The previous record was a quasar dated to when the universe was 870 million years old.

To scientists’ surprise, the black hole powering this quasar was 2 billion times more massive than the sun. How it grew so bulky so early in the universe’s history is a mystery. Black holes are known to feed on stars, gas, and other matter, but their growth was always thought to be slow.

The discovery was reported in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature.

Since quasars are so luminous, they guide the study of the conditions of the cosmos following the Big Bang, the explosion believed to have created the universe 13.7 billion years ago.