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. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Gluttonous Black Holes Eat Faster Than Thought. Does That Explain Quasars?

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

At the heart of large galaxies like our Milky Way, there resides a supermassive black hole (SMBH.) These behemoths draw stars, gas, and dust toward them with their irresistible gravitational pull. When they consume this material, there’s a bright flare of energy, the brightest of which are quasars.

While astrophysicists think that SMBHs eat too slowly to cause a particular type of quasar, new research suggests otherwise.

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The Early Universe Ran in Slow Motion

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

Time is relative, as they say, particularly for mid-day meals. As special relativity shows, the measure of any two clocks depends on their motion relative to each other. The greater their relative speed, the slower each clock is relative to each other. So, since we see distant galaxies speeding away from us, we should also see time move more slowly. Right?

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James Webb is a GO for Cycle 2 Observations!

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has accomplished some amazing things during its first year of operations! In addition to taking the most detailed and breathtaking images ever of iconic celestial objects, Webb completed its first deep field campaign, turned its infrared optics on Mars and Jupiter, obtained spectra directly from an exoplanet’s atmosphere, blocked out the light of a star to reveal the debris disk orbiting it, detected its first exoplanet, and spotted some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe – those that existed at Cosmic Dawn.

Well, buckle up! The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) has just announced what Webb will be studying during its second year of operations – aka. Cycle 2! According to a recent STScI statement, approximately 5,000 hours of prime time and 1,215 hours of parallel time were awarded to General Observer (GO) programs. The programs allotted observation time range from studies of the Solar System and exoplanets to the interstellar and intergalactic medium, from supermassive black holes and quasars to the large-scale structure of the Universe.

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eROSITA Sees Changes in the Most Powerful Quasar

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

After almost seventy years of study, astronomers are still fascinated by active galactic nuclei (AGN), otherwise known as quasi-stellar objects (or “quasars.”) These are the result of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of massive galaxies, which cause gas and dust to fall in around them and form accretion disks. The material in these disks is accelerated to close to the speed of light, causing it to release tremendous amounts of radiation in the visible, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma-ray, and X-ray wavelengths. In fact, quasars are so bright that they temporarily outshine every star in their host galaxy’s disk combined.

The brightest quasar observed to date, 100,000 billion times as luminous as our Sun, is known as SMSS J114447.77-430859.3 (J1144). This AGN is hosted by a galaxy located roughly 9.6 billion light years from Earth between the constellations Centaurus and Hydra. Using data from the eROSITA All Sky Survey and other space telescopes, an international team of astronomers conducted the first X-ray observations of J1144. This data allowed the team to investigate prevailing theories about AGNs that could provide new insight into the inner workings of quasars and how they affect their host galaxies.

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