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Quasars: Brightest Objects in the Universe

Shining so brightly that they eclipse the ancient galaxies that contain them, quasars are distant objects powered by black holes a billion times as massive as our sun. These powerful dynamos have fascinated astronomers since their discovery half a century ago.

In the 1930s, Karl Jansky, a physicist with Bell Telephone Laboratories, discovered that the static interference on transatlantic phone lines was coming from the Milky Way. By the 1950s, astronomers were using radio telescopes to probe the heavens, and pairing their signals with visible examinations of the heavens.

Quasar Black Hole Water Vapor
This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below.
Credit: NASA/ESA

However, some of the smaller point-source objects didn't have a match. Astronomers called them "quasi-stellar radio sources," or "quasars," because the signals came from one place, like a star.  Naming them didn't help determine what these objects were. It took years of study to realize that these distant specks, which seemed to indicate stars, are created by particles accelerated at velocities approaching the speed of light.

Light-speed jets

Scientists now suspect that the tiny, point-like glimmers are actually signals from galactic nuclei outshining their host galaxies. Quasars live only in galaxies with supermassive black holes — black holes that contain billions of times the mass of the sun. Although light cannot escape from the black hole itself, some signals can break free around its edges. While some dust and gas fall into the black hole, other particles are accelerated away from it at near the speed of light. The particles stream away from the black hole in jets above and below it, transported by one of the most powerful particle accelerators in the universe.

Most quasars have been found billions of light-years away. Because it takes light time to travel, studying objects in space functions much like a time machine; we see the object as it was when light left it, billions of years ago. Thus, the farther away scientists look, the farther back in time they can see. Most of the more than 2,000 known quasars existed in the early life of the galaxy. Galaxies like the Milky Way may once have hosted a quasar that has long been silent.

Quasars emit energies of millions, billions, or even trillions of electron volts. This energy exceeds the total of the light of all the stars within a galaxy. The brightest objects in the universe, they shine anywhere from 10 to 100,000 times brighter than the Milky Way.

Family tree

Quasars are part of a class of objects known as active galactic nuclei (AGN). Other classes include Seyfert galaxies and blazars. All three require supermassive black holes to power them.

Seyfert galaxies are the lowest energy AGN, putting out only about 100 kiloelectronvolts (KeV). Blazars, like their quasar cousins, put out significantly more energy.

Many scientists think that the three types of AGNs are the same objects, but with different perspectives. While the jets of quasars seem to stream at an angle generally in the direction of Earth, blazars may point their jets directly toward the planet. Although no jets are seen in Seyfert galaxies, scientists think this may be because we view them from the side, so all of the emission is pointed away from us and thus goes undetected.

— Nola Taylor Redd, SPACE.com Contributor

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