Astronomers have discovered two large, mysterious objects exploding from the brightest black hole in the known universe.
Discovered in space exploration since 1959 radio wave sources, the supermassive Black hole 3C 273 is a quasar – short for “quasi-star object” because the light emitted by these hippos is bright enough to be confused with starlight. While the black holes themselves do not emit light, the largest ones are surrounded by huge vortices of gas called accretion disks; as the gas falls into the black hole at a speed close to light, friction heats the disk and causes it to ignite with radiation – usually detected as radio waves.
Quasar 3C 273 is the first quasar ever identified. It is also the brightest, shining more than 4 trillion times brighter than The Earth‘s sun while sitting at a distance of more than 2.4 billion light years far away. Over the decades, scientists have extensively studied the nucleus of a blazing black hole – but because the quasar is so bright, it is almost impossible to study the surrounding galaxy in which it is located. This remarkable brightness, ironically, left scientists largely unaware of how quasars affect their host galaxies.
Now, a new study published on April 28 in The Astrophysical Journal may finally change that.
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In the study, a team of researchers calibrated the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submilimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile to separate the radiant glow of Quasar 3C 273 from the light emitted by its host galaxy. All they have left is the radio waves emitted by the quasar galaxy – revealing two massive and mysterious radio structures never seen before.
One structure appears to be a huge patch of radio light that envelops the entire galaxy and then stretches for tens of thousands of light years to the southwest. This radio fog overlaps with the second structure – a huge energy jet known as the astrophysical jet, which also extends tens of thousands of light years.
Scientists are not entirely sure how and why astrophysical jets form. However, they know that jets are usually seen around quasars and other supermassive black holes, and probably arise from interactions between a black hole and its dusty accretion disk. Jets are usually made of ionized (electrically charged) matter and travel at speeds close to light.
The radiation released by these jets may appear brighter or weaker depending on the radio frequency at which they are viewed – but the large radio structure around the 3C 273 galaxy shows the same brightness, regardless of its frequency. According to 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 came from star-forming hydrogen gas, which is ionized directly by the quasar itself. This is the first time ionized gas has been seen to stretch tens of thousands of light years around a supermassive black hole, according to researchers.
This discovery addresses a long-standing mystery in astronomy: Can a quasar ionize so much gas in its host galaxy to prevent the formation of new stars? To answer this question, the researchers compared the calculated gas mass of the galaxy with other galaxies of the same type and size. They found that although the quasar had ionized a truly mind-boggling amount of gas, making it useless for building new stars, star formation is not visibly suppressed in the galaxy as a whole. This suggests that thriving, growing galaxies may still exist with radiation quasars belching at their centers.
“This discovery provides a new way to study previously solved problems with optical light observations,” said study co-author Shinya Komugi, an associate professor at Kogaquin University in Tokyo. said in a statement. “By applying the same technique to other quasars, we expect to understand how a galaxy evolves through its interaction with the central nucleus.”
Originally published in Live Science.