The monster black hole looks to be about 800 million times as massive as our sun, and astronomers can't understand how such a behemoth could have already formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age.
This artist's concept shows the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered. That means that the black hole quasar was formed exactly during that reionization phase after the Big Bang event.
The unexpected discovery was based on data gathered from observatories around the world.
Carnegie astronomer Eduardo Bañados led the effort to identify candidates out of the hundreds of millions of objects WISE found that would be worthy of follow-up with Magellan.
The discovery of a massive black hole so early in the universe may provide key clues on conditions at that time, which allowed for huge black holes to form. It's part of a long-term search for the earliest quasars, which will continue. This quasar is especially interesting because it comes from a time when the universe was just beginning to emerge from its dark ages.
However, much of the hydrogen surrounding the discovered quasar is neutral, which means it's the only example of the universe we can see of the times before the ionization that, well, lets us see it.
Quasars are the most luminous non-transient objects known, and as such they enable studies of the Universe at the earliest cosmic epochs. About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas.
"Now that we are seeing it, we have to explain it", said Bañados. The gas has remained in that state since that time. The universe was opaque or "foggy" as photons were interacting with early protons and electrons. This is the point at which the universe became transparent to light.
Astronomers refer to this Doppler-like phenomenon as "redshift"; the more distant an object, the farther its light has shifted toward the red, or infrared end of the spectrum.
A high redshift indicates great distance, and as light takes its sweet time getting to Earth from elsewhere in space (at 186,000 miles per second), science can use this to gauge how far back in time we're seeing something. Scientists previously thought that black holes grow by picking up mass from the environment around them.
Scientists predict the sky contains between 20 and 100 quasars as bright and as distant as this quasar.
The discovery was found by scouring the new generation of wide-area, sensitive surveys astronomers are conducting using NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer in orbit and ground-based telescopes in Chile and Hawaii, Stern said.
"With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years", Stern said.