Astronomers have discovered two large and mysterious objects exploding from the brightest black hole in the known universe.
Discovered in a 1959 cosmic investigation radio waves sources, the supermassive black hole 3C 273 is a quasar, short for “quasi-stellar object”, because the light emitted by these giants is bright enough to be mistaken for starlight. Although black holes themselves do not emit light, the largest ones are surrounded by gigantic swirls of gas called accretion disks; when gas falls into the black hole at nearly the speed of light, friction it heats the disc and causes it to glow with radiation, typically 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 Landof sun while sitting at a distance of over 2.4 billion light years distant. Over the decades, scientists have thoroughly studied the black hole’s fiery core, however, because the quasar is so bright, studying the surrounding galaxy that hosts it was next to impossible. That extraordinary brightness, ironically, has left scientists largely in the dark about the impact of quasars on their host galaxies.
Now, a new study released on April 28 a The astrophysical diary it might finally change that.
Related: Distant “quasar tsunamis” are tearing their own galaxies apart
In the study, a team of researchers calibrated the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile to separate the radiant glow of quasar 3C 273 from the light emitted by its host galaxy. They were left alone with the radio waves emitted by the quasar galaxy, revealing two huge and mysterious radio structures never seen before.
One structure appears to be a huge patch of radio light enveloping the entire galaxy, so it spans tens of thousands of light-years to the southwest. This radio fog overlaps the second structure: a gigantic jet of energy, known as an astrophysical jet, which also spans tens of thousands of light years.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure how or why astrophysical jets are formed. They do 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. Jets are typically made of ionized (electrically charged) matter and travel at nearly the speed of light.
The radiation released by these jets can appear brighter or fainter depending on the radio frequency at which they are observed, however, the large radio structure surrounding the galaxy 3C 273 showed uniform brightness, regardless of its frequency. According to the researchers, this suggests that the two radio structures are created by separate and 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 that ionized gas has been seen extending tens of thousands of light years around a supermassive black hole, according to the researchers.
This discovery touches on a long-standing mystery within astronomy: Can a quasar ionize so much gas in its host galaxy that it prevents new stars from forming? To answer this question, the researchers compared the estimated gas mass of the galaxy with other galaxies of the same type and size. They found that while the quasar had ionized a staggering amount of gas, rendering it useless for building new stars, star formation was not visibly suppressed in the galaxy at large. This suggests that burgeoning and growing galaxies may still exist with quasars spewing radiation at their center.
“This discovery offers a new avenue for studying problems previously addressed using optical light observations,” study lead author Shinya Komugi, associate professor at Kogakuin 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 core.”
Originally published in Live Science.