Maunakea observatories have hand in discovery

  • An artist’s impression of the formation of the quasar Poniuaʻena, starting with a seed black hole 100 million years after the Big Bang (left), then growing into a billion solar mass black hole 700 million years after the Big Bang (right). Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld

A trio of Maunakea observatories — and one Chilean observatory — discovered a celestial object only 700 million years younger than the universe itself.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the W.M. Keck Observatory, the Gemini Observatory, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, a team of researchers discovered a supermassive object more than 13 billion light years away.

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The object is a quasar — the second-most-distant quasar ever discovered. However, its discovery sheds more light about the formation of the early universe, said John O’Meara, chief scientist at Keck Observatory.

“Almost all galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their center,” O’Meara said. “The Milky Way has one. And as these pull in matter, it forms a disc around the black hole called an accretion disc which gets extremely hot and lights up, to the point where they’re visible most of the way across the universe.”

While quasars are not uncommon, the discovery of one from such an early point in the universe’s history challenges some assumptions about that period, O’Meara said.

Because quasars require hundreds of millions of years and extraordinary mass — this newly discovered one has 1.5 billion times the mass of our sun — to form, it was assumed they would be unable to form so soon after the Big Bang.

Because quasars tend to form during early stages of a galaxy’s formation, O’Meara said distant quasars can be used to extrapolate more information about the early life of our own galaxy.

The newly discovered quasar also was given a Hawaiian name: Poniua‘ena, which O’Meara said means, roughly, “the unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded by brilliance.”

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Poniua‘ena was named by a collaboration of 30 Hawaiian immersion school kumu through the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center’s A Hua He Inoa program, which assigns Hawaiian names to astronomical objects.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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