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13 Billion-Year-Old Quasar Is Brightest Object Ever Seen In The Early Universe

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Researchers have spotted a 13 billion-year-old quasar spewing high-speed jets of plasma, making it the brightest object ever seen in the early universe.

A team led by astrophysicist Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science in California first spotted the object ejecting jets of material at nearly the speed of light.

Further observations done by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Emmanuel Momjian confirmed the discovery.

The unprecedented find could help experts studying the early stages of the universe to understand what happened during the transition from the Big Bang.

What Is A Quasar?

Quasars were identified more than 50 years ago as supermassive black holes situated at the heart of galaxies. These black holes consume an enormous amount of matter, much of which accumulates in a disk around the black hole.

This is called an accretion disk, which contains gas and dust circling the black hole at extremely high speeds. The high-speed movement coupled with the strong gravitational pull of the black hole creates friction. This causes the black hole to unleash a powerful jet of material traveling near the speed of light.

These jets are extremely bright when seen in optical and radio frequencies, allowing observers on Earth to pinpoint where they are coming from and identify their sources.

Brightest Quasar In Early Universe

Using the 6.5-meter Magellan Telescopes at Chile's Las Campanas Observatory and NRAO's Very Long Baseline Array operated from Socorro, New Mexico, both teams of researchers were able to identify the quasar called PSO J352.4034-15.3373. It is also called P352-15 for short.

Although quasars are the brightest objects in the universe, only 10 percent of them have strong radio emissions. P352-15 is one of this rare breed of quasars, making it the first quasar from the universe's first billion years to emit radio waves.

The researchers have found that visible light from the quasar has taken 13 billion years to reach Earth. This means the quasar dates back to a time when the universe was only 7 percent of its current age.

"There is a dearth of known strong radio emitters from the universe's youth," says Bañados, "and this is the brightest radio quasar at that epoch by an order of magnitude."

Transition From The Big Bang

The scientists say the quasar could serve as an important tool that will help them look into what is known as the dark ages of the universe.

It is widely accepted that the universe came to being with the Big Bang, which started as a small singularity that expanded into a hot soup of rapidly expanding energetic particles.

As the particles cooled, they coalesced and became atoms of neutral hydrogen. This left the universe without light sources, until gravitational force brought matter together and created the first stars and galaxies.

Some 800 million years after the Big Bang, energy from the first galaxies re-ionized the neutral hydrogen gas, bringing it to the same state as it is in today.

"Further observations may allow us to use this quasar as a background 'lamp' to measure the amount of neutral hydrogen remaining at that time," says NRAO's Chris Carilli.

Quasar Has Three Components

P352-15 is divided into three components. There are two possible explanations for this.

The first is that the black hole sits at one end and the other components comprise a single jet. The other explanation is the black hole is at the center with two jets of less power at each side.

Optical observations of the quasar show the black hole aligns with one of the components, making the first explanation more plausible. By analyzing the one-sided jet, the researchers say it is possible to measure how fast it expands over the years.

"This quasar may be the most distant object in which we could measure the speed of such a jet," says Momjian.

The research is published as two separate papers in The Astrophysical Journal.

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