Quasars are some of the brightest objects in the Universe. The brightest ones are so luminous they outshine a trillion stars. But why? And what does their brightness tell us about the galaxies that host them?
To try to answer that question, a group of astronomers took another look at 28 of the brightest and nearest quasars. But to understand their work, we have to back track a little, starting with supermassive black holes.
The expansion of our universe is accelerating. Every single day, the distances between galaxies grows ever greater. And what’s more, that expansion rate is getting faster and faster – that’s what it means to live in a universe with accelerated expansion. This strange phenomenon is called dark energy, and was first spotted in surveys of distant supernova explosions about twenty years ago. Since then, multiple independent lines of evidence have all come to the same morose conclusion: the universe is getting fatter and fatter faster and faster.
How fast is the Universe expanding? That’s a question that astronomers haven’t been able to answer accurately. They have a name for the expansion rate of the Universe: The Hubble Constant, or Hubble’s Law. But measurements keep coming up with different values, and astronomers have been debating back and forth on this issue for decades.
The basic idea behind measuring the Hubble Constant is to look at distant light sources, usually a type of supernovae or variable stars referred to as ‘standard candles,’ and to measure the red-shift of their light. But no matter how astronomers do it, they can’t come up with an agreed upon value, only a range of values. A new study involving quasars and gravitational lensing might help settle the issue.
In the 1960s, astronomers began to notice that the Universe appeared to be missing some mass. Between ongoing observations of the cosmos and the the Theory of General Relativity, they determined that a great deal of the mass in the Universe had to be invisible. But even after the inclusion of this “dark matter”, astronomers could still only account for about two-thirds of all the visible (aka. baryonic) matter.
This gave rise to what astrophysicists dubbed the “missing baryon problem”. But at long last, scientists have found what may very well be the last missing normal matter in the Universe. According to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this missing matter consists of filaments of highly-ionized oxygen gas that lies in the space between galaxies.
For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from a series of instruments to examine the space near a quasar called 1ES 1553. Quasars are extremely massive galaxies with Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) that emit tremendous amounts of energy. This energy is the result of gas and dust being accreted onto supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of their galaxies, which results in the black holes emitting radiation and jets of superheated particles.
In the past, researchers believed that of the normal matter in the Universe, roughly 10% was bound up in galaxies while 60% existed in diffuse clouds of gas that fill the vast spaces between galaxies. However, this still left 30% of normal matter unaccounted for. This study, which was the culmination of a 20-year search, sought to determine if the last baryons could also be found in intergalactic space.
As Michael Shull – a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the co-authors on the study – indicated, this wild terrain seemed like the perfect place to look.“This is where nature has become very perverse,” he said. “This intergalactic medium contains filaments of gas at temperatures from a few thousand degrees to a few million degrees.”
To test this theory, the team used data from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on the Hubble Space Telescope to examine the WHIM near the quasar 1ES 1553. They then used the European Space Agency’s (ESA) X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) to look closer for signs of the baryons, which appeared in the form of highly-ionized jets of oxygen gas heated to temperatures of about 1 million °C (1.8 million °F).
First, the researchers used the COS on the Hubble Space Telescope to get an idea of where they might find the missing baryons in the WHIM. Next, they homed in on those baryons using the XMM-Newton satellite. At the densities they recorded, the team concluded that when extrapolated to the entire Universe, this super-ionized oxygen gas could account for the last 30% of ordinary matter.
As Prof. Shull indicated, these results not only solve the mystery of the missing baryons but could also shed light on how the Universe began. “This is one of the key pillars of testing the Big Bang theory: figuring out the baryon census of hydrogen and helium and everything else in the periodic table,” he said.
Looking ahead, Shull indicated that the researchers hope to confirm their findings by studying more bright quasars. Shull and Danforth will also explore how the oxygen gas got to these regions of intergalactic space, though they suspect that it was blown there over the course of billions of years from galaxies and quasars. In the meantime, however, how the “missing matter” became part of the WHIM remains an open question. As Danforth asked:
“How does it get from the stars and the galaxies all the way out here into intergalactic space?. There’s some sort of ecology going on between the two regions, and the details of that are poorly understood.”
Assuming these results are correct, scientists can now move forward with models of cosmology where all the necessary “normal matter” is accounted for, which will put us a step closer to understanding how the Universe formed and evolved. Now if we could just find that elusive dark matter and dark energy, we’d have a complete picture of the Universe! Ah well, one mystery at a time…
Dr. Venemans is a research staff scientist working at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany. His research topics include the discovery of black holes in the early Universe, the characterisation of the galaxies hosting these distant black holes, the Epoch of Reionisation and the galaxy environment of active galaxies.
There’s a supermassive black hole at the center of almost every galaxy in the Universe. How did they get there? What’s the relationship between these monster black holes and the galaxies that surround them?
Every time astronomers look farther out in the Universe, they discover new mysteries. These mysteries require all new tools and techniques to understand. These mysteries lead to more mysteries. What I’m saying is that it’s mystery turtles all the way down.
One of the most fascinating is the discovery of quasars, understanding what they are, and the unveiling of an even deeper mystery, where do they come from?
As always, I’m getting ahead of myself, so first, let’s go back and talk about the discovery of quasars.
Back in the 1950s, astronomers scanned the skies using radio telescopes, and found a class of bizarre objects in the distant Universe. They were very bright, and incredibly far away; hundreds of millions or even billion of light-years away. The first ones were discovered in the radio spectrum, but over time, astronomers found even more blazing in the visible spectrum.
The astronomer Hong-Yee Chiu coined the term “quasar”, which stood for quasi-stellar object. They were like stars, shining from a single point source, but they clearly weren’t stars, blazing with more radiation than an entire galaxy.
Over the decades, astronomers puzzled out the nature of quasars, learning that they were actually black holes, actively feeding and blasting out radiation, visible billions of light-years away.
But they weren’t the stellar mass black holes, which were known to be from the death of giant stars. These were supermassive black holes, with millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun.
As far back as the 1970s, astronomers considered the possibility that there might be these supermassive black holes at the heart of many other galaxies, even the Milky Way.
In 1974, astronomers discovered a radio source at the center of the Milky Way emitting radiation. It was titled Sagittarius A*, with an asterisk that stands for “exciting”, well, in the “excited atoms” perspective.
This would match the emissions of a supermassive black hole that wasn’t actively feeding on material. Our own galaxy could have been a quasar in the past, or in the future, but right now, the black hole was mostly silent, apart from this subtle radiation.
Astronomers needed to be certain, so they performed a detailed survey of the very center of the Milky Way in the infrared spectrum, which allowed them to see through the gas and dust that obscures the core in visible light.
They discovered a group of stars orbiting Sagittarius A-star, like comets orbiting the Sun. Only a black hole with millions of times the mass of the Sun could provide the kind of gravitational anchor to whip these stars around in such bizarre orbits.
Further surveys found a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Andromeda Galaxy, in fact, it appears as if these monsters are at the center of almost every galaxy in the Universe.
But how did they form? Where did they come from? Did the galaxy form first, and cause the black hole to form at the middle, or did the black hole form, and build up a galaxy around them?
Until recently, this was actually still one of the big unsolved mysteries in astronomy. That said, astronomers have done plenty of research, using more and more sensitive observatories, worked out their theories, and now they’re gathering evidence to help get to the bottom of this mystery.
Astronomers have developed two models for how the large scale structure of the Universe came together: top down and bottom up.
In the top down model, an entire galactic supercluster formed all at once out of a huge cloud of primordial hydrogen left over from the Big Bang. A supercluster’s worth of stars.
As the cloud came together it, it spun up, kicking out smaller spirals and dwarf galaxies. These could have combined later on to form the more complex structure we see today. The supermassive black holes would have formed as the dense cores of these galaxies as they came together.
If you want to wrap your mind around this, think of the stellar nursery that formed our Sun and a bunch of other stars. Imagine a single cloud of gas and dust forming multiple stars systems within it. Over time, the stars matured and drifted away from each other.
That’s top down. One big event that leads to the structure we see today.
In the bottom up model, pockets of gas and dust collected together into larger and larger masses, eventually forming dwarf galaxies, and even the clusters and superclusters we see today. The supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies were grown from collisions and mergers between black holes over eons.
In fact, this is actually how astronomers think the planets in the Solar System formed. By pieces of dust attracting one another into larger and larger grains until the planet-sized objects formed over millions of years.
Bottom up, small parts coming together.
Shortly after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was incredibly dense. But it wasn’t the same density everywhere. Tiny quantum fluctuations in density at the beginning evolved over billions of years of expansion into the galactic superclusters we see today.
I want to stop and let this sink into your brain for a second. There were microscopic variations in density in the early Universe. And these variations became the structures hundreds of millions of light-years across we see today.
Imagine the two forces at play as the expansion of the Universe happened. On the one hand, you’ve got the mutual gravity of the particles pulling one another together. And on the other hand, you’ve got the expansion of the Universe separating the particles from one another. The size of the galaxies, clusters and superclusters were decided by the balance point of those opposing forces.
If small pieces came together, then you’d get that bottom up formation. If large pieces came together, you’d get that top down formation.
When astronomers look out into the Universe at the largest scales, they observe clusters and superclusters as far as they can see – which supports the top down model.
On the other hand, observations show that the first stars formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which supports bottom up.
The key is that gravity moves at the speed of light, which means that the gravitational interactions between particles spreading away from each other needed to catch up, going the speed of light.
In other words, you wouldn’t get a supercluster’s worth of material coming together, only a star’s worth of material. But these first stars were made of pure hydrogen and helium, and could grow much more massive than the stars we have today. They would live fast and die in supernova explosions, creating much more massive black holes than we get today.
The first protogalaxies came together, collecting together these first monster black holes and the massive stars surrounding them. And then, over millions and billions of years, these black holes merged again and again, accumulating millions and even billions of times the mass of the Sun. This was how we got the modern galaxies we see today.
There was a recent observation that supports this conclusion. Earlier this year, astronomers announced the discovery of supermassive black holes at the center of relatively tiny galaxies. In our own Milky Way, the supermassive black hole is 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, but accounts for only .01% of the galaxy’s total mass.
But astronomers from the University of Utah found two ultra compact galaxies with black holes of 4.4 million and 5.8 million times the mass of the Sun respectively. And yet, the black holes account for 13 and 18 percent of the mass of their host galaxies.
The thinking is that these galaxies were once normal, but collided with other galaxies earlier on in the history of the Universe, were stripped of their stars and then were spat out to roam the cosmos.
They’re the victims of those early merging events, evidence of the carnage that happened in the early Universe when the mergers were happening.
We always talk about the unsolved mysteries in the Universe, but this is one that astronomers are starting to puzzle out.
It seems most likely that the structure of the Universe we see today formed bottom up. The first stars came together into protogalaxies, dying as supernova to form the first black holes. The structure of the Universe we see today is the end result of billions of years of formation and destruction. With the supermassive black holes coming together over time.
Once telescopes like James Webb get to work, we should be able to see these pieces coming together, at the very edge of the observable Universe.
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It’s a common question overhead at many public star parties in reference to telescopes.
In the coming weeks as the Moon passes Full and moves out of the evening sky, we’d like to challenge you to hunt down a bright example of one of the most distant and exotic objects known: a quasar.
To carry out this feat, you’ll need a ‘scope with at least an aperture of 20 centimetres or greater, dark skies, and patience.
Although more than 200,000 of quasars are currently known and they’re some of the most luminous objects in the universe, they’re also tremendously distant. A very few are brighter than magnitude +14, about the brightness of Pluto. Most quasars have an absolute magnitude rivaling our Sun, though if you plopped one down 33 light years away, we’d definitely have other things to worry about. Continue reading “Peer Into the Distant Universe: How to See Quasars With Backyard Telescopes”
The combined observations from two generations of X-Ray space telescopes have now revealed a more complete picture of the nature of high-speed winds expelled from super-massive black holes. Scientist analyzing the observations discovered that the winds linked to these black holes can travel in all directions and not just a narrow beam as previously thought. The black holes reside at the center of active galaxies and quasars and are surrounded by accretion discs of matter. Such broad expansive winds have the potential to effect star formation throughout the host galaxy or quasar. The discovery will lead to revisions in the theories and models that more accurately explain the evolution of quasars and galaxies.
The observations were by the XMM-Newton and NuSTAR x-ray space telescopes of the quasar PDS 456. The observations were combined into the graphic, above. PDS 456 is a bright quasar residing in the constellation Serpens Cauda (near Ophiuchus). The data graph shows both a peak and a trough in the otherwise nominal x-ray emission profile as shown by the NuSTAR data (pink). The peak represents X-Ray emissions directed towards us (i.e.our telescopes) while the trough is X-Ray absorption that indicates that the expulsion of winds from the super-massive black hole is in many directions – effectively a spherical shell. The absorption feature caused by iron in the high speed wind is the new discovery.
X-Rays are the signature of the most energetic events in the Cosmos but also are produced from some of the most docile bodies – comets. The leading edge of a comet such as Rosetta’s P67 generates X-Ray emissions from the interaction of energetic solar ions capturing electrons from neutral particles in the comet’s coma (gas cloud). The observations of a super-massive black hole in a quasar billions of light years away involve the generation of x-rays on a far greater scale, by winds that evidently has influence on a galactic scale.
The study of star forming regions and the evolution of galaxies has focused on the effects of shock waves from supernova events that occur throughout the lifetime of a galaxy. Such shock waves trigger the collapse of gas clouds and formation of new stars. This new discovery by the combined efforts of two space telescope teams provides astrophysicists new insight into how star and galaxy formation takes place. Super-massive blackholes, at least early in the formation of a galaxy, can influence star formation everywhere.
Both the ESA built XMM-Newton and the NuSTAR X-Ray space telescope, a SMEX class NASA mission, use grazing incidence optics, not glass (refraction) or mirrors (reflection) as in conventional visible light telescopes. The incidence angle of the X-rays must be very shallow and consequently the optics are extended out on a 10 meter (33 foot) truss in the case of NuSTAR and over a rigid frame on the XMM-Newton.
The ESA built XMM-Newton was launched in 1999, an older generation design that used a rigid frame and structure. All the fairing volume and lift capability of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle was needed to put the Newton in orbit. The latest X-Ray telescope – NuSTAR – benefits from tens years of technological advances. The detectors are more efficient and faster and the rigid frame was replaced with a compact truss which required all of 30 minutes to deploy. Consequently, NuSTAR was launched on a Pegasus rocket piggybacked on a L-1011, a significantly smaller and less expensive launch system.
So now these observations are effectively delivered to the theorists and modelers. The data is like a new ingredient in the batter from which a galaxy and stars are formed. The models of galaxy and star formation will improve and will more accurately describe how quasars, with their active super-massive black-holes, transition into more quiescent galaxies such as our own Milky Way.
Gravity’s a funny thing. Not only does it tug away at you, me, planets, moons and stars, but it can even bend light itself. And once you’re bending light, well, you’ve got yourself a telescope.
Everyone here is familiar with the practical applications of gravity. If not just from exposure to Loony Tunes, with an abundance of scenes with an anthropomorphized coyote being hurled at the ground from gravitational acceleration, giant rocks plummeting to a spot inevitably marked with an X, previously occupied by a member of the “accelerati incredibilus” family and soon to be a big squish mark containing the bodily remains of the previously mentioned Wile E. Coyote.
Despite having a very limited understanding of it, Gravity is a pretty amazing force, not just for decimating a infinitely resurrecting coyote, but for keeping our feet on the ground and our planet in just the right spot around our Sun. The force due to gravity has got a whole bag of tricks, and reaches across Universal distances. But one of its best tricks is how it acts like a lens, magnifying distant objects for astronomy.
Thanks to the general theory of relativity, we know that mass curves the space around it. The theory also predicted gravitational lensing, a side effect of light travelling along the curvature of space and time where light passing nearby a massive object is deflected slightly toward the mass.
It was first observed by Arthur Eddington and Frank Watson Dyson in 1919 during a solar eclipse. The stars close to the Sun appeared slightly out of position, showing that the light from the stars was bent, and demonstrated the effect predicted. This means the light from a distant object, such as a quasar, could be deflected around a closer object such as a galaxy. This can focus the quasar’s light in our direction, making it appear brighter and larger. So gravitational lensing acts as a kind of magnifying glass for distant objects making them easier to observe.
We can use the effect to peer deeper into the Universe than would otherwise be possible with our conventional telescopes. In fact, the most distant galaxies ever observed, ones seen just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, were all discovered using gravitational lensing. Astronomers use gravitational microlensing to detect planets around other stars. The foreground star acts as a lens for a background star. As the star brightens up, you can detect further distortions which indicate there are planets. Even amateur telescopes are sensitive enough to spot them, and amateurs regularly help discover new planets. Unfortunately, these are one time events as this alignment happens only once.
There’s a special situation known as an Einstein Ring, where a more distant galaxy is warped by a nearby galaxy into a complete circle. To date a few partial rings have been seen, but no perfect Einstein Ring has ever been spotted.
Gravitational lensing also allows us to observe invisible things in our Universe. Dark matter doesn’t emit or absorb light on its own, so we can’t observe it directly. We can’t take a photo and say “Hey look, dark matter!”. However, it does have mass, and that means it can gravitationally lens light originating behind it. So we’ve even used the effect of gravitational lensing to map out dark matter in the Universe.
What about you? Where should we focus our gravitational lensing efforts to get a better look in the Universe? Tell us in the comments below.