The Earliest Merging Quasars Ever Seen

This illustration depicts two quasars in the process of merging. Using both the Gemini North telescope, one half of the International Gemini Observatory, which is supported in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation and operated by NSF NOIRLab, and the Subaru Telescope, a team of astronomers have discovered a pair of merging quasars seen only 900 million years after the Big Bang. Not only is this the most distant pair of merging quasars ever found, but also the first confirmed pair found in the period of the Universe known as Cosmic Dawn.

Studying the history of science shows how often serendipity plays a role in some of the most important discoveries. Sometimes, the stories are apocryphal, like Newton getting hit on the head with an apple. But sometimes, there’s an element of truth to them. That was the case for a new discovery of the oldest pair of merging quasars ever discovered – and it all started with a pair of red blots on a picture.

Continue reading “The Earliest Merging Quasars Ever Seen”

What Can AI Learn About the Universe?

Will AI become indispensable in an age of "big data" astronomy? Credit: DALL-E

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have become ubiquitous, with applications ranging from data analysis, cybersecurity, pharmaceutical development, music composition, and artistic renderings. In recent years, large language models (LLMs) have also emerged, adding human interaction and writing to the long list of applications. This includes ChatGPT, an LLM that has had a profound impact since it was introduced less than two years ago. This application has sparked considerable debate (and controversy) about AI’s potential uses and implications.

Astronomy has also benefitted immensely, where machine learning is used to sort through massive volumes of data to look for signs of planetary transits, correct for atmospheric interference, and find patterns in the noise. According to an international team of astrophysicists, this may just be the beginning of what AI could do for astronomy. In a recent study, the team fine-tuned a Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) model using observations of astronomical objects. In the process, they successfully demonstrated that GPT models can effectively assist with scientific research.

Continue reading “What Can AI Learn About the Universe?”

This New Map of 1.3 Million Quasars Is A Powerful Tool

This figure from the research shows the sky distribution of the new Quaia quasar catalogue in Galactic coordinates and is displayed using a Mollweide projection. The grey region across the center is the Milky Way, a blind spot in the Quaia catalogue. Image Credit: K. Storey-Fisher et al. 2024

Quasars are the brightest objects in the Universe. The most powerful ones are thousands of times more luminous than entire galaxies. They’re the visible part of a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of a galaxy. The intense light comes from gas drawn toward the black hole, emitting light across several wavelengths as it heats up.

But quasars are more than just bright ancient objects. They have something important to show us about the dark matter.

Continue reading “This New Map of 1.3 Million Quasars Is A Powerful Tool”

Little Red Dots in Webb Photos Turned Out to Be Quasars

A n EIGER JWST image of the luminous quasar J1148+5251, an extremely rare active SMBH of 10 billion solar masses (blue box). Two “baby quasars” (red boxes) are seen in the same dataset. © NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Matthee (ISTA), R. Mackenzie (ETH Zurich), D. Kashino (National Observatory of Japan), S. Lilly (ETH Zurich)

In its first year of operation, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) made some profound discoveries. These included providing the sharpest views of iconic cosmic structures (like the Pillars of Creation), transmission spectra from exoplanet atmospheres, and breathtaking views of Jupiter, its largest moons, Saturn’s rings, its largest moon Titan, and Enceladus’ plumes. But Webb also made an unexpected find during its first year of observation that may prove to be a breakthrough: a series of little red dots in a tiny region of the night sky.

These little red dots were observed as part of Webb’s Emission-line galaxies and Intergalactic Gas in the Epoch of Reionization (EIGER) and the First Reionization Epoch Spectroscopically Complete Observations (FRESCO) surveys. According to a new analysis by an international team of astrophysicists, these dots are galactic nuclei containing the precursors of Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) that existed during the early Universe. The existence of these black holes shortly after the Big Bang could change our understanding of how the first SMBHs in our Universe formed.

Continue reading “Little Red Dots in Webb Photos Turned Out to Be Quasars”

The Brightest Object Ever Seen in the Universe

This artist’s impression shows the record-breaking quasar J059-4351, the bright core of a distant galaxy that is powered by a supermassive black hole. The light comes from gas and dust that's heated up before it's drawn into the black hole. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

It’s an exciting time in astronomy today, where records are being broken and reset regularly. We are barely two months into 2024, and already new records have been set for the farthest black hole yet observed, the brightest supernova, and the highest-energy gamma rays from our Sun. Most recently, an international team of astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile reportedly saw the brightest object ever observed in the Universe: a quasar (J0529-4351) located about 12 billion light years away that has the fastest-growing supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center.

Continue reading “The Brightest Object Ever Seen in the Universe”

Watch 14 Years of Gamma-Ray Observations in This Fascinating NASA Video

Still from the video showing 14 years of data gathered by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Credit: NASA Goddard

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, named in honor of noted physicist Enrico Fermi, has been in operation for almost a decade and a half, monitoring the cosmos for gamma rays. As the highest-energy form of light, these rays are produced by extremely energetic phenomena – like supernovae, neutron stars, quasars, and gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). In honor of this observatory’s long history, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center has released a time-lapse movie that shows data acquired by the Fermi Space Telescope between August 2008 and August 2022.

Continue reading “Watch 14 Years of Gamma-Ray Observations in This Fascinating NASA Video”

Vera Rubin Will Find Binary Supermassive Black Holes. Here’s How.

This image is from a simulation of two merging black holes. The upcoming Vera Rubin Observatory should be able to detect binary black holes before they merge. But the vexing problem of false positives needs a solution. Image Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) Project

When galaxies merge, we expect them to produce binary black holes (BBHs.) BBHs orbit one another closely, and when they merge, they produce gravitational waves that have been detected by LIGO-Virgo. The upcoming Vera Rubin Observatory should be able to find them before they merge, which would open a whole new window into the study of galaxy mergers, supermassive black holes, binary black holes, and gravitational waves.

Continue reading “Vera Rubin Will Find Binary Supermassive Black Holes. Here’s How.”

Sometimes Compact Galaxies Hide Their Black Holes

Illustration of an active quasar. What role does its dark matter halo play in activating the quasar? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Quasars, short for quasi-stellar objects, are one of the most powerful and luminous classes of objects in our Universe. A subclass of active galactic nuclei (AGNs), quasars are extremely bright galactic cores that temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. This is due to the supermassive black holes in the galactic cores that consume material from their accretion disks, a donut-shaped ring of gas and dust that orbit them. This matter is accelerated to close to the speed of light and slowly consumed, releasing energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Based on past observations, it is well known to astronomers that quasars are obscured by the accretion disk that surrounds them. As powerful radiation is released from the SMBH, it causes the dust and gas to glow brightly in visible light, X-rays, gamma-rays, and other wavelengths. However, according to a new study led by researchers from the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy (CEA) at Durham University, quasars can also be obscured by the gas and dust of their entire host galaxies. Their findings could help astronomers better understand the link between SMBHs and galactic evolution.

Continue reading “Sometimes Compact Galaxies Hide Their Black Holes”

Supermassive Black Holes Shut Down Star Formation During Cosmic Noon

Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva
Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

Since it became operational almost two years ago, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has produced countless breathtaking images of the Universe and enabled fresh insights into how it evolved. In particular, the telescope’s instruments are optimized for studying the cosmological epoch known as Cosmic Dawn, ca. 50 million to one billion years after the Big Bang when the first stars, black holes, and galaxies in the Universe formed. However, astronomers are also getting a better look at the epoch that followed, Cosmic Noon, which lasted from 2 to 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

During this time, the first galaxies grew considerably, most stars in the Universe formed, and many galaxies with supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at their centers became incredibly luminous quasars. Scientists have been eager to get a better look at galaxies dated to this period so they can see how SMBHs affected star formation in young galaxies. Using near-infrared data obtained by Webb, an international team of astronomers made detailed observations of over 100 galaxies as they appeared 2 to 4 billion years after the Big Bang, coinciding with Cosmic Noon.

Continue reading “Supermassive Black Holes Shut Down Star Formation During Cosmic Noon”

A Huge New Gaia Data Release: More Stars, Gravitational Lenses and Asteroids

The ESA's Gaia observatory expanded its targets to include the tightly-packed center of Omega Centauri, an ancient globular cluster. Image Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Acknowedgements: Michele Trabucchi, Nami Mowlavi and Thomas Lebzelter

The ESA’s Gaia mission is releasing a new tranche of astronomical data. The mission has released three regular, massive hauls of data since it launched in 2013, named Gaia DR1, DR2, and DR3. The ESA is calling this one a ‘focused product release,’ and while it’s smaller than the previous three releases, it’s still impactful.

Continue reading “A Huge New Gaia Data Release: More Stars, Gravitational Lenses and Asteroids”