Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Cosmic curiosity reveals ghostly glow of dead quasar

While sorting through hundreds of galaxy images as part of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project two years ago, Dutch schoolteacher and volunteer astronomer Hanny van Arkel stumbled upon a strange-looking object that baffled professional astronomers.

Two years later, a team led by Yale University researchers has discovered that the unique object represents a snapshot in time that reveals surprising clues about the life cycle of black holes.

The green Voorwerp in the foreground remains illuminated by light emitted up to 70,000 years ago by a quasar in the center of the background galaxy, which has since died out. Credit: WIYN/William Keel/Anna Manning

In a new study, the team has confirmed that the unusual object, known as Hanny's Voorwerp (Hanny's "object" in Dutch), is a large cloud of glowing gas illuminated by the light from a quasar—an extremely energetic galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its center.

The twist, described online in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, is that the quasar lighting up the gas has since burned out almost entirely, even though the light it emitted in the past continues to travel through space, illuminating the gas cloud and producing a sort of "light echo" of the dead quasar.

"This system really is like the Rosetta Stone of quasars," said Yale astronomer Kevin Schawinski, a co-founder of Galaxy Zoo and lead author of the study. "The amazing thing is that if it wasn't for the Voorwerp being illuminated nearby, the galaxy never would have piqued anyone's interest."

The team calculated that the light from the dead quasar, which is the nearest known galaxy to have hosted a quasar, took up to 70,000 years to travel through space and illuminate the Voorwerp—meaning the quasar must have shut down sometime within the past 70,000 years.

Until now, it was assumed that supermassive black holes took millions of years to die down after reaching their peak energy output. However, the Voorwerp suggests that the supermassive black holes that fuel quasars shut down much more quickly than previously thought. "This has huge implications for our understanding of how galaxies and black holes co-evolve," Schawinski said.

"The time scale on which quasars shut down their prodigious energy output is almost entirely unknown," said Meg Urry, director of the Yale Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics and a co-author of the paper. "That's why the Voorwerp is such an intriguing—and potentially critical—case study for understanding the end of black hole growth in quasars."

Although the galaxy no longer shines brightly in X-ray light as a quasar, it is still radiating at radio wavelengths. Whether this radio jet played a role in shutting down the central black hole is just one of several possibilities Schawinski and the team will investigate next.

"We've solved the mystery of the Voorwerp," he said. "But this discovery has raised a whole bunch of new questions."

Other authors of the paper include Shanil Virani, Priyamvada Natarajan, Paolo Coppi (all of Yale University); Daniel Evans (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Elon University); William Keel and Anna Manning (University of Alabama and Kitt Peak National Observatory); Chris Lintott (University of Oxford and Adler Planetarium); Sugata Kaviraj (University of Oxford and Imperial College London); Steven Bamford (University of Nottingham); Gyula Józsa (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and Argelander-Institut für Astronomie); Michael Garrett (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, Leiden Observatory and Swinburne University of Technology); Hanny van Arkel (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy); Pamela Gay (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville); and Lucy Fortson (University of Minnesota).

Citation: Kevin Schawinski et al 2010 ApJ 724 L30 DOI: 10.1088/2041-8205/724/1/L30

Suzanne Taylor Muzzin | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Scientists discover particles similar to Majorana fermions
25.10.2016 | Chinese Academy of Sciences Headquarters

nachricht Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves
24.10.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>