Most quasars live on snacks, not large meals

Jun 20, 2012
The galaxies pictured here have so much dust surrounding them that the brilliant light from their quasars cannot be seen in these images NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Quasars are the brilliant beacons of light that are powered by black holes feasting on captured material, and in the process, heating some of the matter to millions of degrees. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Yale

(Phys.org) -- Black holes in the early universe needed a few snacks rather than one giant meal to fuel their quasars and help them grow, according to observations from NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes.

Quasars are the brilliant beacons of light that are powered by feasting on captured material, and in the process, heating some of the matter to millions of degrees. The brightest reside in distorted by collisions with other galaxies. These encounters send lots of gas and dust into the gravitational whirlpool of hungry black holes.

Now, however, astronomers are uncovering an underlying population of fainter quasars that thrive in normal-looking spiral galaxies. They are triggered by black holes snacking on such tasty treats as a batch of gas or the occasional small .

A census of 30 quasar host galaxies conducted with two of NASA's premier observatories, Hubble and Spitzer, has found that 26 of the host galaxies bear no telltale signs of collisions with neighbors, such as distorted shapes. Only one galaxy in the sample shows evidence of an interaction with another galaxy. The galaxies existed roughly 8 billion to 12 billion years ago, during a peak epoch of black-hole growth.

The study, led by Kevin Schawinski of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., bolsters evidence that the growth of most massive black holes in the was fueled by small, long-term events rather than dramatic short-term major mergers.

"Quasars that are products of are very bright," Schawinski said. "The objects we looked at in this study are the more typical quasars. They're a lot less luminous. The brilliant quasars born of get all the attention because they are so bright and their host galaxies are so messed up. But the typical bread-and-butter quasars are actually where most of the black-hole growth is happening. They are the norm, and they don't need the drama of a collision to shine."

Schawinski's science paper has been accepted for publication in a letter to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

For his analysis, Schawinski analyzed galaxies observed by the Spitzer and Hubble telescopes in the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey. He chose 30 dust-enshrouded galaxies that appeared extremely bright in infrared images taken by the Spitzer telescope, a sign that their resident black holes are feasting on surrounding material. The dust is blocking the quasar's light at visible wavelengths. But infrared light pierces the dust, allowing Schawinski to study the galaxies' detailed structure. The masses of those galaxies are comparable to that of our Milky Way.

Schawinski then studied the galaxies in near-infrared images taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Hubble's sharp images allowed careful analysis of galaxy shapes, which would be significantly distorted if major galaxy mergers had taken place and were disrupting the structure. Instead, in all but one instance, the galaxies show no such disruption.

Whatever process is stoking the quasars, it's below the detection capability of even Hubble. "I think it's a combination of processes, such as random stirring of gas, supernovae blasts, swallowing of small bodies, and streams of gas and stars feeding material into the nucleus," Schawinski said.

A black hole doesn't need much gas to satisfy its hunger and turn on a quasar. "There's more than enough gas within a few light-years from the center of our Milky Way to turn it into a quasar," Schawinski explained. "It just doesn't happen. But it could happen if one of those small clouds of gas ran into the black hole. Random motions and stirrings inside the galaxy would channel gas into the black hole. Ten billion years ago, those random motions were more common and there was more gas to go around. Small galaxies also were more abundant and were swallowed up by larger galaxies."

The galaxies in Schawinski's study are prime targets for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared observatory scheduled to launch later this decade. "To get to the heart of what kinds of events are powering the quasars in these galaxies, we need the Webb telescope. Hubble and Spitzer have been the trailblazers for finding them."

The team of astronomers in this study consists of K. Schawinski, B.D. Simmons, C.M. Urry and E. Glikman (Yale University), and E. Treister (Universidad de Concepcion, Chile).

Explore further: Cosmic illusion revealed: Gravitational lens magnifies supernova

Related Stories

Merging galaxies create a binary quasar (w/ Video)

Feb 03, 2010

Astronomers have found the first clear evidence of a binary quasar within a pair of actively merging galaxies. Quasars are the extremely bright centers of galaxies surrounding super-massive black holes, and ...

Cosmic Curiosity Reveals Ghostly Glow of Dead Quasar

Nov 03, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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 ...

Measuring galaxy black hole masses

May 27, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Black holes, one of the most amazing and bizarre predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity, are irresistible sinks for matter and energy. They are so dense that not even light can escape ...

Recommended for you

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

8 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

A star's early chemistry shapes life-friendly atmospheres

Apr 23, 2014

Born in a disc of gas and rubble, planets eventually come together as larger and larger pieces of dust and rock stick together. They may be hundreds of light-years away from us, but astronomers can nevertheless ...

Image: X-raying the cosmos

Apr 22, 2014

When we gaze up at the night sky, we are only seeing part of the story. Unfortunately, some of the most powerful and energetic events in the Universe are invisible to our eyes – and to even the best optical ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tuxford
1 / 5 (5) Jun 20, 2012
I predict, that given enough time, and JWST coming online, even mainstream astronomers will eventually get it right: that accretive feeding is not the primary mechanism powering these objects. They will eventually have to conclude that the primary powering mechanism is indeed internal, as LaViolette predicts in his SubQuantum Kinectics model, and a revolt against the physics community should ensue. Sidetracked into believing First Law is an equivalence under all conditions, physicists have constrained astronomers into adherence to the relativist's fanciful cosmological expanding space models. How embarrassing!

More news stories

Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth ...

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

Kazakh satellite to be launched into orbit

Kazakhstan's first-ever Earth observation satellite is to be fired into orbit next week from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana, launch company Arianespace said.

First-of-its-kind NASA space-weather project

A NASA scientist is launching a one-to-two-year pilot project this summer that takes advantage of U.S. high-voltage power transmission lines to measure a phenomenon that has caused widespread power outages ...

Study links California drought to global warming

While researchers have sometimes connected weather extremes to man-made global warming, usually it is not done in real time. Now a study is asserting a link between climate change and both the intensifying California drought ...