Star power

Telescope in Chile spots biggest ever black hole blast

European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope discovers a super huge quasar that may unlock mysteries of galaxy formation. 

Friday, December 07, 2012 Category: Education
An artist’s impression of the enormous and drily named SDSS J1106+1939 Quasar. Photo courtesy of ESO An artist’s impression of the enormous and drily named SDSS J1106+1939 Quasar. Photo courtesy of ESO.


Astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert have found a quasar five times more powerful than any other observed to date. Recent theories concerning galaxy formation rely upon such supermassive quasars, though their existence had not been confirmed until now.


Quasars are huge emissions of mass and energy powered by black holes in the center of young galaxies. While black holes are in the business of sucking in materials, they can also jettison large amounts of energy and matter back out into space.


The existence of supermassive quasars has been put forth as an answer to several mysteries in cosmology, namely the direct link between the mass of a galaxy and its central black hole mass, and the reason for the low number of large galaxies in the universe.


“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,” said Nahum Arav, an astronomer from Virginia Tech and team leader of the study. “I’ve been looking for something like this for a decade, so it’s thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted!”


The quasar, known as SDSS J1106+1939, is 11.5 billion light years away and has a power outflow about two trillion times that of our sun, or 100 times the power output of the entire Milky Way galaxy.


Astronomers in the study used an instrument attached to the VLT known as the X-shooter spectrograph which allowed them to split up the light emitted from the qauser and study properties of its materials. This included the velocity at which mass is streaming away from the quasar, which clocked in at 4970 miles per second (8000 km), or 2.6 percent the speed of light.


“We couldn’t have got the high-quality data to make this discovery without the VLT’s X-shooter spectrograph,” said astronomer Benoit Borguet, lead author of the new paper. “We were able to explore the region around the quasar in great detail for the first time.”


Due to its almost non-existent humidity and clear skies, the Atacama is the planet’s premier location for astronomy. Chile is home to almost half the world’s telescope infrastructure, and this is set to increase to over two thirds by 2018. 

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