With a description as immense as the cosmic wonder itself, quasar tsunamis carry huge amounts of energy across their host galaxies at over 10 percent of the speed of light. Recently, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope provided observations to study 13 quasars and their outflows, but astronomers using the international Gemini Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaiʻi, have uncovered an even more powerful source, which now sits at the top of the “most energetic quasar tsunami” list.
Found at the heart of massive galaxies, quasars are created when supermassive black holes are fed with material from its host galaxy. As the active black hole pulls in the surrounding matter, it heats up gas around it to such extreme temperatures that it can shine 1,000 times brighter than its host galaxy. The intense radiation emitted from the hot gas, which creates the quasar, also drives torrential winds that sweep material away from the galaxy’s center.
“While high-velocity winds have previously been observed in quasars, these have been thin and wispy, carrying only a relatively small amount of mass,” Sarah Gallagher, an associate professor at Western University, Canada, who led the Gemini observations, said in a statement. “The outflow from this quasar, in comparison, sweeps along a tremendous amount of mass at incredible speeds. This wind is crazy powerful, and we don’t know how the quasar can launch something so substantial.”
As detailed in The Astrophysical Journal, the outflow from SDSS J135246.37+423923.5 quasar was found by astronomers to travel at nearly 13 percent of the speed of light, powered by a supermassive black hole 8.6 billion times as massive as the Sun. With the staggering amount of energy this outflow carries, star formation across the entire galaxy, found roughly 10 billion light-years from Earth, could be dramatically impacted.
Although this quasar has not been shy about its existence, it had remained hidden in plain sight for 15 years. Thick winds from the quasar obscure the outflow’s signature at visible wavelengths, leaving its record-breaking capabilities difficult to discover. However, using the Gemini Near-Infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS) and a pioneering computer modeling approach, the team were able to quite literally “see through” the wind at infrared wavelengths. This helped them to determine the staggering 38,000 kilometers per second (24,000 miles per second) outflow velocity from the windy quasar.
“We were shocked – this isn’t a new quasar, but no one knew how amazing it was until the team got the Gemini spectra,” Karen Leighly, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and one of the scientific leads for this research, explained. “These objects were too hard to study before our team developed our methodology and had the data we needed, and now it looks like they might be the most interesting kind of windy quasars to study.”
Could this mean then that we will hear more about these cosmic beasts?
“Since automated software generally identifies quasars by strong emission lines or blue color – two properties our object lacks – there could be more of these quasars with tremendously powerful outflows hidden away in our surveys,” Hyunseop (Joseph) Choi, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma and first author of the paper, concluded.
Watch this quasar tsunami space…