Most Detailed Image Of A Quasar From The Early Universe Revealed By Astronomers

An artist's impression of a quasar. Robin Dienel, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science

Astronomers have used radio telescopes to snap an incredible image of a bright quasar nearly 13 billion light-years from us. The object is unusually bright for something from the first billion years of the universe so the observations will provide a lot of insight into this early time.

The object is known as PSO J352.4034-15.3373, or P352-15 for short. During the study, which is published in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers were able to identify three structures, two of which show further substructures. The team captured the supermassive black hole that powers the quasar and one or two jets of material from it. They used the Very Long Baseline Array to make the observations.

Quasars are the active core of galaxies whose central supermassive black hole is going through a feeding frenzy. The supermassive black holes in quasars are surrounded by a disk of material, spinning so quickly it ends up shooting jets of material out of the host galaxy.

“We are seeing P352-15 as it was when the universe was less than a billion years old, or only about 7 percent of its current age,” co-author Chris Carilli, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), said in a statement. “This is near the end of a period when the first stars and galaxies were re-ionizing the neutral hydrogen atoms that pervaded intergalactic space. Further observations may allow us to use this quasar as a background ‘lamp’ to measure the amount of neutral hydrogen remaining at that time.”

This important image is a first step but it is far from a clear picture of the object. It can actually be interpreted in two ways. Either the supermassive black hole is at the center and we are seeing two jets being emitted in opposite directions, or the black hole is on the left and we are seeing the emission from a one-sided jet.

The quasar observation. Momjian, et al.; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Both explanations raise exciting possibilities. The first explanation suggests that the system is either very young or embedded in a lot of gas. Studying it could help us understand the larger scale of the early universe.

“This quasar’s brightness and its great distance make it a unique tool to study the conditions and processes that prevailed in the first galaxies in the universe,” Carilli added. “We look forward to unraveling more of its mysteries.”

The other explanation, which is potentially more likely, is equally exciting. The team could observe how the jet has changed in the next few years and measure its speed. This has never been done for an object at this distance. Further observations should solve this mystery.

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