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Quasars vs Supernovas

07 January 2013, 11:05

Quasars vs Supernovas

Main Source: Wikipedia

What are Quasars?

And why are they Significant?

 A quasi-stellar radio source ("quasar") is a very energetic and distant active galactic nucleus. Quasars are extremely luminous and were first identified as being high redshift sources of electromagnetic energy, including radio waves and visible light, that were point-like, similar to stars, rather than extended sources similar to galaxies.

While the nature of these objects was controversial until as recently as the early 1980s, there is now a scientific consensus that a quasar is a compact region in the center of a massive galaxy surrounding its central supermassive black hole. Its size is 10–10,000 times the Schwarzschild radius of the black hole. The quasar is powered by an accretion disc around the black hole.

An active galactic nucleus (AGN) is a compact region at the centre of a galaxy that has a much higher than normal luminosity over at least some portion, and possibly all, of the electromagnetic spectrum. Such excess emission has been observed in the radio, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. A galaxy hosting an AGN is called an active galaxy. The radiation from AGN is believed to be a result of accretion of mass by the supermassive black hole at the centre of the host galaxy. AGN are the most luminous persistent sources of electromagnetic radiation in the universe, and as such can be used as a means of discovering distant objects; their evolution as a function of cosmic time also provides constraints on models of the cosmos.

The Schwarzschild radius (sometimes historically referred to as the gravitational radius) is the distance from the center of an object such that, if all the mass of the object were compressed within that sphere, the escape speed from the surface would equal the speed of light. An example of an object smaller than its Schwarzschild radius is a black hole. Once a stellar remnant collapses within this radius, light cannot escape and the object is no longer visible. It is a characteristic radius associated with every quantity of mass. The Schwarzschild radius was named after the German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild who calculated this exact solution for the theory of general relativity in 1915.

An accretion disc is a structure (often a circumstellar disk) formed by diffuse material in orbital motion around a central body. The central body is typically a star. Gravity causes material in the disc to spiral inward towards the central body. Gravitational forces compress the material causing the emission of electromagnetic radiation. The frequency range of that radiation depends on the central object. Accretion discs of young stars and protostars radiate in the infrared; those around neutron stars and black holes in the X-ray part of the spectrum.

Quasars show a very high redshift, which is an effect of the expansion of the universe between the quasar and the Earth. They are among the most luminous, powerful, and energetic objects known in the universe. They tend to inhabit the very centers of active young galaxies and can emit up to a thousand times the energy output of the Milky Way. When combined with Hubble's law, the implication of the redshift is that the quasars are very distant—and thus, it follows, objects from much earlier in the universe's history. The most luminous quasars radiate at a rate that can exceed the output of average galaxies, equivalent to two trillion (2×1012) suns. This radiation is emitted across the spectrum, almost equally, from X-rays to the far-infrared with a peak in the ultraviolet-optical bands, with some quasars also being strong sources of radio emission and of gamma-rays. In early optical images, quasars looked like single points of light (i.e., point sources), indistinguishable from stars, except for their peculiar spectra. With infrared telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, the "host galaxies" surrounding the quasars have been identified in some cases. These galaxies are normally too dim to be seen against the glare of the quasar, except with these special techniques. Most quasars cannot be seen with small telescopes, but 3C 273, with an average apparent magnitude of 12.9, is an exception. At a distance of 2.44 billion light-years, it is one of the most distant objects directly observable with amateur equipment.

Some quasars display changes in luminosity which are rapid in the optical range and even more rapid in the X-rays. Because these changes occur very rapidly they define an upper limit on the volume of a quasar; quasars are not much larger than the Solar System. This implies an astonishingly high energy density. The mechanism of brightness changes probably involves relativistic beaming of jets pointed nearly directly toward us. The highest redshift quasar known (as of June 2011) is ULAS J1120+0641, with a redshift of 7.085, which corresponds to a proper distance of approximately 29 billion light-years from Earth.

Quasars are believed to be powered by accretion of material into supermassive black holes in the nuclei of distant galaxies, making these luminous versions of the general class of objects known as active galaxies. Since light cannot escape the super massive black holes that are at the centre of quasars, the escaping energy is actually generated outside the event horizon by gravitational stresses and immense friction on the incoming material. Large central masses (106 to 109 Solar masses) have been measured in quasars using reverberation mapping. Several dozen nearby large galaxies, with no sign of a quasar nucleus, have been shown to contain a similar central black hole in their nuclei, so it is thought that all large galaxies have one, but only a small fraction emit powerful radiation and so are seen as quasars. The matter accreting onto the black hole is unlikely to fall directly in, but will have some angular momentum around the black hole that will cause the matter to collect in an accretion disc. Quasars may also be ignited or re-ignited from normal galaxies when infused with a fresh source of matter. In fact, it has been theorized that a quasar could form as the Andromeda Galaxy collides with our own Milky Way galaxy in approximately 3–5 billion years.

More than 200,000 quasars are known, most from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. All observed quasar spectra have redshifts between 0.056 and 7.085. Applying Hubble's law to these redshifts, it can be shown that they are between 600 million and 28.85 billion light-years away (in terms of proper distance). Because of the great distances to the farthest quasars and the finite velocity of light, we see them and their surrounding space as they existed in the very early universe.

Most quasars are known to be farther than three billion light-years away. Although quasars appear faint when viewed from Earth, the fact that they are visible at all from so far away is due to quasars being the most luminous objects in the known universe. The quasar that appears brightest in the sky is 3C 273 in the constellation of Virgo. It has an average apparent magnitude of 12.8 (bright enough to be seen through a medium-size amateur telescope), but it has an absolute magnitude of -26.7. From a distance of about 33 light-years, this object would shine in the sky about as brightly as our sun. This quasar's luminosity is, therefore, about 2 trillion (2 × 1012) times that of our sun, or about 100 times that of the total light of average giant galaxies like our Milky Way. However, this assumes the quasar is radiating energy in all directions. An active galactic nucleus can be associated with a powerful jet of matter and energy; it need not be radiating in all directions. In a universe containing hundreds of billions of galaxies, most of which had active nuclei billions of years ago and would be seen located billions of light-years away, it is statistically certain that thousands of energy jets are pointed toward us, some more directly than others. In many cases it is likely that the brighter the quasar, the more directly its jet is aimed at us.

Quasars were much more common in the early universe. This discovery by Maarten Schmidt in 1967 was early strong evidence against the Steady State cosmology of Fred Hoyle, and in favor of the Big Bang cosmology. Quasars show where massive black holes are growing rapidly (via accretion). These black holes grow in step with the mass of stars in their host galaxy in a way not understood at present. One idea is that the jets, radiation and winds from quasars shut down the formation of new stars in the host galaxy, a process called 'feedback'. The jets that produce strong radio emission in some quasars at the centers of clusters of galaxies are known to have enough power to prevent the hot gas in these clusters from cooling and falling down onto the central galaxy.

Quasars are found to vary in luminosity on a variety of time scales. Some vary in brightness every few months, weeks, days, or hours. This means that quasars generate and emit their energy from a very small region, since each part of the quasar would have to be in contact with other parts on such a time scale to coordinate the luminosity variations. As such, a quasar varying on the time scale of a few weeks cannot be larger than a few light-weeks across. The emission of large amounts of power from a small region requires a power source far more efficient than the nuclear fusion that powers stars. The release of gravitational energy by matter falling towards a massive black hole is the only process known that can produce such high power continuously. Stellar explosions – supernovas and gamma-ray bursts – can do so, but only for a few weeks. Black holes were considered too exotic by some astronomers in the 1960s, and they suggested that the redshifts arose from some other (unknown) process, so that the quasars were not really so distant as the Hubble law implied. This 'redshift controversy' lasted for many years. Many lines of evidence (seeing host galaxies, finding 'intervening' absorption lines, gravitational lensing) now demonstrate that the quasar redshifts are due to the Hubble expansion, and quasars are as powerful as first thought.

Quasar redshifts are measured from the strong spectral lines that dominate their optical and ultraviolet spectra. These lines are brighter than the continuous spectrum, so they are called 'emission' lines. They have widths of several percent of the speed of light. These widths are due to Doppler shifts caused by the high speeds of the gas emitting the lines. Fast motions strongly indicate a large mass. Emission lines of hydrogen (mainly of the Lyman series and Balmer series), helium, carbon, magnesium, iron and oxygen are the brightest lines. The atoms emitting these lines range from neutral to highly ionized, i.e., many of the electrons are stripped off the ion, leaving it highly charged. This wide range of ionization shows that the gas is highly irradiated by the quasar, not merely hot, and not by stars, which cannot produce such a wide range of ionization.

Since quasars exhibit properties common to all active galaxies, the emissions from quasars can be readily compared to those of smaller active galaxies powered by smaller supermassive black holes. To create a luminosity of 1040 W, or joules per second (the typical brightness of a quasar), a super-massive black hole would have to consume the material equivalent of 10 stars per year. The brightest known quasars devour 1000 solar masses of material every year. The largest known is estimated to consume matter equivalent to 600 Earths per minute. Quasars 'turn on and off' depending on their surroundings, and since quasars cannot continue to feed at high rates for 10 billion years, after a quasar finishes accreting the surrounding gas and dust, it becomes an ordinary galaxy.

Quasars also provide some clues as to the end of the Big Bang's reionization. The oldest quasars (redshift = 6) display a Gunn-Peterson trough and have absorption regions in front of them indicating that the intergalactic medium at that time was neutral gas. More recent quasars show no absorption region but rather their spectra contain a spiky area known as the Lyman-alpha forest. This indicates that the intergalactic medium has undergone reionization into plasma, and that neutral gas exists only in small clouds.

Quasars show evidence of elements heavier than helium, indicating that galaxies underwent a massive phase of star formation, creating population III stars between the time of the Big Bang and the first observed quasars.

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