Quasar Tsunamis Discovered – Highest Energy Outflows Ever Witnessed in the Universe

Galaxy With an Active Quasar

This is an illustration of a distant galaxy with an active quasar at its center. A quasar emits exceptionally large amounts of energy generated by a supermassive black hole fueled by infalling matter. Using the unique capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered that blistering radiation pressure from the vicinity of the black hole pushes material away from the galaxy’s center at a fraction of the speed of light. The “quasar winds” are propelling hundreds of solar masses of material each year. This affects the entire galaxy as the material snowplows into surrounding gas and dust. Credit: NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted (STScI)

Using the unique capabilities of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers led by Virginia Tech’s Nahum Arav has discovered the most energetic outflows ever witnessed in the universe.

The outflows emanate from quasars and tear across interstellar space similar to tsunamis on Earth, wreaking havoc on the galaxies in which the quasars reside. Quasars are the brilliant, compact cores of distant galaxies that can shine 1,000 times brighter than their host galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars. Their central engines are supermassive black holes that are engorged with infalling dust, gas, and stars, said Arav, a professor in the Department of Physics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Quasars are created when a black hole devours matter, thus emitting intense radiation. Driven by the blistering radiation pressure from the black hole, concussive blasts push material away from the galaxy’s center into outflows that accelerate to breathtaking velocities that are a few percent of the speed of light, Arav said.

Virginia Tech Quasar Tsunami Team

From left to right, Xinfeng Xupost, Nahum Arav, and Timothy Miller of the Department of Physics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. Credit: Virginia Tech

“These outflows are crucial for the understanding of galaxies’ formation,” Arav said. “They are pushing hundreds of solar masses of material each year. The amount of mechanical energy that these outflows carry is up to several hundreds of times higher than the luminosity of the entire Milky Way galaxy.”

The findings appear in the March issue of Astrophysical Journal Supplements. Arav’s research team includes post-doctorate researcher Timothy Miller and doctoral student Xinfeng Xu, both from Virginia Tech, as well as Gerard Kriss and Rachel Plesha of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

The quasar winds disseminate across the galaxy’s disc, violently sweeping material that otherwise would have formed new stars. Radiation pushes the gas and dust for far greater distances than scientists previously thought, creating a galaxy-wide event, according to the study.

As this cosmic tsunami slams into interstellar material, its temperature spikes to billions of degrees, where material glows largely in X-rays, but also widely across the light spectrum. Anyone witnessing this event would see a fantastic show of fireworks. “You’ll get lots of radiation first in X-rays and gamma rays, and afterwards it will percolate to visible and infrared light,” Arav said. “You’d get a huge light show, like Christmas trees all over the galaxy.”

Numerical simulation of galaxy evolution suggest that such outflows can explain some important cosmological puzzles, such as why astronomers observe so few large galaxies in the universe and why there is a relationship between the mass of the galaxy and the mass of its central black hole. This study show that such powerful quasar outflows should be prevalent in the early universe.

“Both theoreticians and observers have known for decades that there is some physical process that shuts off star formation in massive galaxies, but the nature of that process has been a mystery. Putting the observed outflows into our simulations solves these outstanding problems in galactic evolution,” said Jeremiah P. Ostriker, an eminent cosmologist at Columbia and Princeton universities. (Ostriker was not involved with this study.)

Aside from measuring the most energetic quasars ever observed, the team also discovered another outflow accelerating faster than any other. The outflow increased from nearly 43 million miles per hour to roughly 46 million miles per hour in a three-year period. The scientists believe its acceleration will continue to increase as time passes.

“There were so many discoveries in the data that I felt like a kid in a candy store,” Miller added.

Astronomers were able to clock the breakneck speed of gas being accelerated by the quasar wind by looking at spectral “fingerprints” of light from the glowing gas. The Hubble ultraviolet data shows that these absorption features were shifted in the spectrum because of the fast motion of the gas across space. This is due to the Doppler effect, where the motion of an object compresses or stretches wavelengths of light depending on whether it is approaching or receding from us. Only Hubble has the ultraviolet sensitivity to obtain the necessary observations leading to this discovery, according to NASA.

Written by Ann Jenkins and Ray Villard of the Space Telescope Science Institute, with additional reporting by Steven Mackay of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

For more on this topic, read Quasar Tsunamis Tear Across Interstellar Space Wreaking Havoc on Galaxies.

References:
HST/COS Observations of Quasar Outflows in the 500–1050 Å Rest Frame. I. The Most Energetic Outflows in the Universe and Other Discoveries” by Nahum Arav, Xinfeng Xu, Timothy Miller, Gerard A. Kriss and Rachel Plesha, 16 March 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/ab66af
HST/COS Observations of Quasar Outflows in the 500–1050 Å Rest Frame. II. The Most Energetic Quasar Outflow Measured to Date” by Xinfeng Xu, Nahum Arav, Timothy Miller, Gerard A. Kriss and Rachel Plesha, 16 March 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/ab596a
HST/COS Observations of Quasar Outflows in the 500–1050 Å Rest Frame. III. Four Similar Outflows in 2MASS J1051+1247 with Enough Energy to Be Major Contributors to AGN Feedback” by Timothy R. Miller, Nahum Arav, Xinfeng Xu, Gerard A. Kriss and Rachel J. Plesha, 16 March 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/ab5967
HST/COS Observations of Quasar Outflows in the 500–1050 Å Rest Frame. IV. The Largest Broad Absorption Line Acceleration” by Xinfeng Xu, Nahum Arav, Timothy Miller, Gerard A. Kriss and Rachel Plesha, 16 March 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/ab4bcb
HST/COS Observations of Quasar Outflows in the 500–1050 Å Rest Frame. V. Richness of Physical Diagnostics and Ionization Potential-dependent Velocity Shift in PKS J0352-0711″ by Timothy R. Miller, Nahum Arav, Xinfeng Xu, Gerard A. Kriss and Rachel J. Plesha, 16 March 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/ab5969
HST/COS Observations of Quasar Outflows in the 500–1050 Å Rest Frame. VI. Wide, Energetic Outflows in SDSS J0755+2306″ by Xinfeng Xu, Nahum Arav, Timothy Miller, Gerard A. Kriss and Rachel Plesha, 16 March 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/ab5f68

3 Comments on "Quasar Tsunamis Discovered – Highest Energy Outflows Ever Witnessed in the Universe"

  1. Gadfly Giznot | March 27, 2020 at 9:36 am | Reply

    “Quasars are created when a black hole devours matter, thus emitting intense radiation. Driven by the blistering radiation pressure from the black hole, concussive blasts push material away from the galaxy’s center into outflows that accelerate to breathtaking velocities that are a few percent of the speed of light, Arav said.”
    So much to speculate about, so little time. When is this field going to elevate itself to an actual science instead of the field of fantasy it is today? So we have blistering radiation pressure driving concussive blasts that push material that then accelerates to breathtaking velocities. Unless they’ve repeatedly demonstrated this actually being done in a lab setting (not), this is just pure speculation. If nothing else, be honest in your reporting and qualify this stuff as, “Our best guess is,” or “Gosh, we’re really not sure what we’re looking at here, but we’ll take a stab at it,” or best, “Cracky, that’s amazing, we really don’t have a clue what’s going on.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 27, 2020 at 6:10 pm | Reply

      It is a science, obviously from the article, but here you go: “Astronomy is one of the oldest natural sciences. The early civilizations in recorded history made methodical observations of the night sky. …” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomy ]. And I’m not going to explain why they don’t study galaxies in the lab [!] or need to. Look up “science” in a good encyclopedia and study how it is done in real life.

      “Concussive blasts”? Did you read the article, better yet the paper?

      This is how science is done, making new discoveries. The outflows have been researched for years now, since they – in combination with gas gravitationally falling back in feedback cycles – explain much. They explain why early galaxies formed stars at higher rates than today (as mature super massive black holes strangle the star formation rate). And also lots of correlations between observations that wouldn’t be there without a feedback mechanism tying the processes together.

      If you are curious, look up the paper, read it and then read its references to learn more. And so on. It’s work to learn, but it is exciting results so some find it rewarding.

      • Gadfly Giznot | April 1, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Reply

        And if you’d read the article you’d see that “concussive blasts” is right there in it, third paragraph. And yes, I agree that science is all about making new discoveries. And yes, there is data and observation, and then there is interpretation of data and observation, which without laboratory testing is just that, best guess interpretation. And unfortunately, current sacred beliefs within this field dictate those interpretations in the absence of solid scientific proofs, or better yet, reasonable means to attempt to disprove. Although, it does seem that it might be possible to set up an experiment to see if/how the stated materials could be moved by a concussive blast in space. How it would culminate that material is a total mystery though. Again, many grand assumptions and beliefs went into the conclusions stated in this article.

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