The Virtual Telescope Project makes a record setting observation at the edge of the Universe.

Imaged the most distant quasar observable at visible wavelengths: its light has traveled in space for 12.9 billion years.

Quasar SDSS J114816.64+525150.3 imaged via the Virtual Telescope Project between Mar. and Apr. 2024.

Quasar SDSS J114816.64+525150.3 imaged via the Virtual Telescope Project between Mar. and Apr. 2024.

Never before a telescope of 350mm in diameter looked so far back in space and time.

Media Kit available here.

A Guinness-worthy observation was made on these nights by the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy. The 356 mm aperture robotic unit part of the Project has indeed succeeded in the incredible feat of capturing the most remote celestial body in the northern sky, observable at visible wavelengths, at the edge of the Universe. It is quasar SDSS J114816.64+525150.3, located in the Ursa Major constellation. It is so distant that its light, observed from Earth today, started its journey almost 12.9 billion years ago, when the Universe was less than 900 million years old, against its current estimated age of 13.7 billion years. To our knowledge, never before had a telescope of 350mm in diameter ventured so far.

An historic achievement, made possible also thanks to the extraordinary quality of the night sky in the Montauto area of Manciano (Tuscany, Italy), where the instruments of the Virtual Telescope Project are installed. That region is characterized by the most starry and light pollution-free sky in the entire Italian peninsula and for such environmental qualities, it deserves – as has been the case in other Countries – to be preserved as a star park, given the extraordinary astronomical observations it allows, like the record-breaking one announced here.

The telescope used to image SDSS J114816.64+525150.3.

The telescope used to image SDSS J114816.64+525150.3.

When discovered in 2003, SDSS J114816.64+525150.3 became the farthest quasar known at the time. Since then, only eight more distant quasars have been identified, but the mentioned one remains the farthest observable at visible light wavelengths, located in the northern sky.

“Due to the expansion of the Universe, electromagnetic radiation experiences the so-called redshift, a cosmological effect that determines a shift towards the red end of the observed wavelength, more pronounced the farther the source is,” comments Gianluca Masi, astrophysicist and scientific director of the Virtual Telescope Project. “On this quasar, with a redshift of z=6.42, the extent of the phenomenon is such that almost all of its light is shifted into the infrared, with only a tiny fraction remaining in the extreme red side of the visible domain,” continues the astrophysicist. “The very few known quasars farther away are observable only in the infrared,” Masi adds.

The imaging camera used, based on a CCD sensor, retains some sensitivity to those wavelengths, which contributed to the success of the endeavor.

“Never before has a telescope with a diameter of 350mm gazed so far, to our knowledge” comments Gianluca Masi. In the obtained image, sources were recorded down to almost magnitude 25, with an exposure time of almost seven hours, confirming that telescopes of similar caliber to the one used here can achieve a lot, especially if used under truly pure and favorable skies like those of Manciano (Italy). “In October 1982, the famous 5-meter diameter telescope at Mount Palomar – which has a light-collecting capacity 200 times greater than the instrument we used – captured the first image of Halley’s Comet, as it approached the Sun, while it was of magnitude 24.1, evidently within our reach today,” Masi adds.

It is important to note that this celestial object does not benefit from any gravitational lensing effect, making it significantly more challenging to observe.

It is not only the incredible record-breaking distance surpassed by this observation that returns an extraordinary emotion, but also the significance of that faint light captured by the keen eyes of the Virtual Telescope Project. That almost imperceptible point, which in Earth’s sky appears a billion times fainter than Polaris, is so far in the past that, at that time, the Universe was going through the so-called “Epoch of Reionization” between 150 million and one billion years after the Big Bang, due to the energy radiated by the first stars and galaxies formed in that primordial cosmos.

The quasar SDSS J114816.64+525150.3 is among the most energetic objects in the sky, one of the brightest inhabitants of the Universe back then, “animated” by a colossal central black hole with a mass equivalent to billions of stars like the Sun.

Artistic rendering of a quasar (credit: Nasa).

Artistic rendering of a quasar (credit: Nasa).

Quasars represent the luminous cores of distant galaxies, whose “engine” is a supermassive black hole. It continuously receives material from the surrounding space, which, while waiting to fall into it, lingers in a very hot accretion disk, releasing an enormous amount of energy, making quasars among the brightest objects in the sky, visible at very deep distances.

Such an extreme observation highlights the extraordinary capabilities and potential of the Virtual Telescope Project and the sky of the location, Manciano (Italy), where it is installed. Only in recent months, its instruments made possible the discovery of a probable nova in the Andromeda Galaxy and a new blazar candidate in one of the most heavily observed sky regions. This adds to the extraordinary contribution of the Virtual Telescope Project to the dissemination of scientific culture, through collaborations with the most important media outlets on the planet.


About the Virtual Telescope Project

Founded in 2006, the Virtual Telescope Project is a technologically advanced facility, consisting of various robotic telescopes, active in both research and scientific communication, with remote control through any Internet-connected device. Nowadays, it enjoys an extraordinary international reputation. Through its online observing sessions, the Virtual Telescope Project has been able to show live the most extraordinary astronomical phenomena, such as asteroids passing close to Earth, comets, supernovae, eclipses, and meteor showers, to millions of people worldwide. Its exclusive events and contributions are presented by the most important space agencies and press agencies on the planet. In recognition of the achievements, both in scientific and outreach domains, the International Astronomical Union has assigned the name “Virtelpro” to the asteroid (435127). The Virtual Telescope Project is a member of the International Asteroid Warning Network, which, under the auspices of the UN, works to optimize planetary defense activities against the risk of asteroid impact.


About Gianluca Masi

Gianluca Masi was born in Frosinone. Graduated in Physics, with an astrophysical focus, from “La Sapienza” University, he obtained a PhD in Astronomy from “Tor Vergata” University. He has about 1000 professional contributions to his credit, has discovered dozens of asteroids, numerous variable stars, is a co-discoverer of three extrasolar planets and the transient ASASSN-15lh, among the brightest supernovae ever identified. In 2006 he founded the Virtual Telescope Project. His scientific and photographic contributions regularly appear on Ansa, BBC, CNN, Newsweek, New York Times, RAI, and other prestigious national and international media, radio, and TV. He has given numerous lectures both in Italy and abroad. He actively deals with the relationship between the science of the sky and the world of art, dedicating himself intensively to photography as well. Among the numerous recognitions received, the asteroid (21795) was named “Masi” by the International Astronomical Union for his scientific merits, he won the Planetary Society’s “Shoemaker NEO Grant”, the Italian Astronomical Society’s “Tacchini Prize”, and the Italian Astrofili Union’s “Ruggieri Prize”. Coordinator for Italy of Asteroid Day and Astronomers Without Borders, he is a member of the International Astronomical Union and the European Astronomical Society. He is associated with the National Institute of Astrophysics and Ambassador of the “Dark Skies for All” project of the International Astronomical Union.

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