Astronomers have discovered two large mysterious objects erupting from the brightest black hole in the known universe.
Discovered during a 1959 survey of the cosmos radio wave sources, the supermassive black hole 3C 273 is a quasar – short for “quasi-stellar object”, because the light emitted by these behemoths is bright enough to be mistaken for starlight. While black holes themselves don’t emit light, larger ones are surrounded by gargantuan eddies of gas called accretion disks; when the gas falls into the black hole at a speed close to light, friction heats the disc and causes it to blaze with radiation – usually detected as radio waves.
Quasar 3C 273 is the first quasar ever identified. It’s also the brightest, shining over 4 trillion times brighter than Earthfrom the sun while sitting at a distance of more than 2.4 billion Light years a way. Over the decades, scientists have studied the black hole’s blazing core extensively – however, because the quasar is so bright, studying the surrounding galaxy that hosts it has been nearly impossible. This remarkable brightness has, ironically, left scientists in the dark about the impact of quasars on their host galaxies.
Now, a new study published April 28 in The Astrophysical Journal can finally change that.
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In the study, a team of researchers calibrated the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile to separate the radiant glow from quasar 3C 273 from the light emitted by its host galaxy. All that remained were the radio waves emitted by the quasar galaxy, revealing two massive and mysterious radio structures never seen before.
One structure appears to be a massive patch of radio light that envelops the entire galaxy, then extends tens of thousands of light-years to the southwest. This radio fog overlaps with the second structure – a gargantuan jet of energy, known as the astrophysical jet, which also spans tens of thousands of light years.
Scientists don’t know exactly how or why astrophysical jets form. They know, however, that jets are commonly seen around quasars and other supermassive black holes, and likely result from interactions between a black hole and its dusty accretion disk. The jets are generally made up of ionized (electrically charged) matter and move at close to the speed of light.
The radiation emitted by these jets can appear brighter or fainter depending on the radio frequency at which they are observed. However, the large radio structure surrounding galaxy 3C 273 showed uniform brightness regardless of frequency. According to the researchers, this suggests that the two radio structures are created by separate, unrelated phenomena.
After testing several theories, the team concluded that the large radio fog around the galaxy comes from star-forming hydrogen gas that is ionized directly by the quasar itself. This is the first time ionized gas has been seen stretching tens of thousands of light-years around a supermassive black hole, the researchers say.
This discovery touches on a long-standing mystery within astronomy: can a quasar ionize so much gas in its host galaxy that it prevents the formation of new stars? To answer this question, the researchers compared the galaxy’s estimated gas mass to other galaxies of the same type and size. They found that although the quasar ionized a truly mind-boggling amount of gas, rendering it useless for building new stars, star formation was not visibly suppressed across the galaxy. This suggests that thriving and growing galaxies may still exist with radiation-emitting quasars at their center.
“This discovery offers a new avenue for investigating problems previously addressed using optical light observations,” said the study’s lead author Shinya Komugi, an associate professor at Kogakuin University in Tokyo. said in a press release. “By applying the same technique to other quasars, we hope to understand how a galaxy evolves through its interaction with the central core.”
Originally posted on Live Science.