Distant quasar imaged in unprecedented detail

This quasar could tell astronomers a lot about the state of the early universe and the first-ever galaxies

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Artist’s conception of distant quasar P352-15, with disk of material orbiting the black hole and jet of fast-moving particles ejected into space. Image credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie

Astronomers using the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) have made an image revealing tantalising details of a quasar nearly 13 billion light-years from Earth – an object that may provide important clues about the physical processes at work in the universe’s first galaxies.

The scientists studied a quasar called PSO J352.4034-15.3373 (P352-15), an unusually bright emitter of radio waves for an object so distant. The extremely sharp radio “vision” of the VLBA showed the object split into three major components, two of which show further subdivision. The components are spread over a distance of only about 5,000 light-years.

Quasars are galaxies with supermassive black holes at their cores – black holes millions or billions of times more massive than the Sun. The powerful gravitational pull of such a black hole draws in nearby material, which forms a rotating disk around the massive object. The rapidly-spinning disk spews jets of particles moving outward at speeds approaching that of light. These energetic “engines” are bright emitters of light and radio waves.

“This is the most detailed image yet of such a bright galaxy at this great distance,” says Emmanuel Momjian, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

“There is a dearth of known strong radio emitters from the universe’s youth and this is the brightest radio quasar at that epoch by a factor of 10,” says Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California, United States.

VLBA image of the quasar P352–15, at a distance of nearly 13 billion light-years from Earth. Three main components of the object are seen, with two of them showing further substructure. Image credit: Momjian, et al.; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF

“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,” says Chris Carilli, of NRAO. “This is near the end of a period when the first stars and galaxies were re-ionising 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.”

The astronomers say the three major components of P352-15 can be explained in one of two ways. One explanation is that they’re seeing the bright core of the quasar, corresponding to the location of the supermassive black hole itself, at one end, and the two other bright spots are parts of a one-sided jet. The other possibility is that their middle object is the core, and the other objects are jets ejected in opposite directions. Because one of the end objects is closest to the position of the quasar as seen with visible-light telescopes, they consider the one-sided jet to be the more likely explanation.

The one-sided jet explanation raises the exciting possibility that astronomers may be able to detect and measure the expansion of the jet by observing P352-15 over several years. “This quasar may be the most distant object in which we could measure the speed of such a jet,” says Momjian.

If, instead, the middle object is the core, with two oppositely-moving jets, its small size suggests that it may be very young or be embedded in dense gas that is slowing the jets’ expansion. Planned future observations will tell which scenario is accurate, the scientists say.

“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,” says Carilli. “We look forward to unravelling more of its mysteries.”

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