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Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have identified the biggest quasar outflow, a type of high energy explosion surrounding a massive black hole, to date.
Belonging to a quasar known as ‘SDSS J1106+1939’, the explosion recorded by ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile is the most powerful eruption to ever be observed from a quasar.
Quasars are among the most luminous and powerful objects known in the universe. They are found at the centre of some distant galaxies, surrounding supermassive black holes. While black holes are best known for sucking light in, most quasars work by accelerating the material around them and ejecting it at high speeds. Burning brighter than many stars, they throw out powerful amounts of ‘red-shifted’ electromagnetic energy.
“We have discovered the most energetic quasar outflow known to date,” said Nahum Arav of Virginia Tech University who led the project at ESO.
“The rate that energy is carried away by this huge mass of material ejected at high speed from SDSS J1106+1939 is at least equivalent to two million million times the power output of the sun. This is about 100 times higher than the total power output of the Milky Way galaxy – it’s a real monster of an outflow. This is the first time that a quasar outflow has been measured to have the sort of very high energies that are predicted by theory.”
Most quasars are known to be farther than three billion light-years away and are usually found at the centre of young and active galaxies. The fact that quasars are able to produce such large outflows could help scientists understand how the mass of a galaxy is linked to the mass of its black holes. This in turn could help answer one of the fundamental mysteries facing modern cosmology: why there are so few large galaxies in the universe.
“I’ve been looking for something like this for a decade,” adds Nahum Arav, “so it’s thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted.” The team’s findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.