The study lends further confirmation to what scientists have long suspected -- that quasars are made up of super-massive black holes and the super-heated disks of material that are spiraling into them.
The results of the Ohio State University-led project were reported Thursday at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) High Energy Astrophysics Division in San Francisco.
"There are many models that try to describe what's happening inside a quasar, and before, none of them could be ruled out. Now some of them can," said Xinyu Dai, a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State. "We can begin to make more precise models of quasars, and gain a more complete view of black holes."
Seen from Earth, quasars, or quasi-stellar objects, look like stars. They are extremely bright, which is why we can see them even though they are among the most distant objects in the universe. Astronomers puzzled over quasars for decades before deciding that they most likely contain super-massive black holes that formed billions of years ago.
Black holes cannot be directly observed, because they are so massive that even light cannot escape their gravity. The material that is falling into a black hole, on the other hand, glows brightly. In the case of quasars, the material shines across a broad range of energies, including visible light, radio waves, and X-rays.
Dai and Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy, and their colleagues studied the light emanating from two quasars.
Quasars are so far away that even in the most advanced telescopes, they look like a tiny pinpoint of light. The interior structures of the two quasars in this study only became visible when a galaxy happened to line up just right between them and the Earth, and magnified their light like a lens.
The astronomers likened the effect to being able to look at the quasars under a microscope.
Einstein predicted that massive objects in space can sometimes act like lenses, bending and magnifying light from objects that are behind them, as seen by an observer. The effect is called gravitational lensing, and it enables astronomers to study some objects in otherwise unattainable detail.
"Luckily for us, sometimes stars and galaxies act as very high-resolution telescopes," Kochanek said. "Now we're not just looking at a quasar, we're probing the very inside of a quasar and getting down to where the black hole is."
They were able to measure the size of the so-called accretion disk around the black hole inside each quasar.
In each, the disk surrounded a smaller area that was emitting X-rays, as if the disk material was being heated up as it fell into the black hole in the center.
That's what they expected to see, given current notions about quasars. But the inside view will help them begin to refine those notions, Dai said.
Key to the project was NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which allowed them to precisely measure the brightness of the X-ray emitting region of each quasar. They coupled those measurements to ones from optical telescopes which belong to the Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System Consortium.
The astronomers studied the variability of both the X-rays and visible light coming from the quasars and compared those measurements to calculate the size of the accretion disk in each. They used a computer program that Kochanek created especially for such calculations, and ran it on a 48-processor computer cluster. Calculations for each quasar took about a week to complete.
The two quasars they studied are named RXJ1131-1231 and Q2237+0305, and there's nothing special about them, Kochanek said, except that they were both gravitationally lensed. He and his group are currently studying 20 such lensed quasars, and they'd like to eventually gather X-ray data on all of them.
This project is part of an ongoing collaboration between Ohio State and Penn State University. Coauthors on the AAS presentation included Nicholas Morgan of Ohio State, and George Chartas and Gordon Garmire of Penn State.
NASA funded this research. The computer cluster was provided by Cluster Ohio, an initiative of the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC), the Ohio Board of Regents, and the OSC Statewide Users Group.
Astronomers find unexpected, dust-obscured star formation in distant galaxy
24.03.2017 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Gravitational wave kicks monster black hole out of galactic core
24.03.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
24.03.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy