Astroboffins spy the brightest quasar that lit the universe's dark ages

The light has only taken 13 billion years to reach us

quasar_radio
An artist's impression of a radio jet plume emitted from a quasar. Image credit: Robin Dienel, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.

Scientists have spotted the brightest ancient quasar formed when the universe was less than billion years old, according to research published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The newly discovered quasar, known by its not very catchy name PSO J352.4034-15.3373 or P352-15, also shoots out huge jets of plasma that appear extremely bright in radio telescopes. Scientists have been observing quasars for more than 50 years, but only ten per cent emit strong radio radiation.

Using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) telescopes in New Mexico, a team of researchers detected the light that has been travelling nearly 13 billion years to reach Earth.

"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 an order of magnitude," said Eduardo Bañados, first author of one of the papers and a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University.

Quasars are extremely energetic and emit powerful rays of electromagnetic radiation powered by a hungry supermassive black hole guzzling gas. The surrounding material is swept up into an accretion disk that slowly spirals into the void, and as it falls inward frictional forces heat the disk up to scorching temperatures making it hot enough to emit X-ray radiation.

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This is the first quasar to be seen with clear plumes of radio radiation known to have existed within the first billion years of the universe’s evolution. "This is the most-detailed image yet of such a bright galaxy at this great distance," said Emmanuel Momjian, first author of the second paper and an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

They hope that the quasar will be able to help other scientists learn more about the universe’s dark ages, a period of time not well understood. The universe began about 13.7 billion years ago after the Big Bang, and started as a hot soupy mixture of particles that started cooling as it began expanding.

After 800 million years after the Big Bang, the particles clumped together to form the first elements and the first stars and galaxies. But before then, there was no light.

"The jet from this quasar could serve as an important calibration tool to help future projects penetrate the dark ages and perhaps reveal how the earliest galaxies came into being," Bañados concluded. ®

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