The Rise and Fall of

Quasars

Dormant monsters may lie sleeping in nearby galaxies.
40

May 1999 Sky & Telescope

©1999 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

little was known about the galaxies that quasars lived in.C. The latter image has had the quasar’s starlike core subtracted mathematically. The Earthbound astronomers of the late 20th century will call these extraordinarily luminous objects quasars. and hence luminosity. ©1999 Sky Publishing Corp. The CanadaFrance-Hawaii Telescope obtained the view at right. The difficulty with observing galaxies around quasars is that the latter are both bright and far away. a starlike source of radio waves whose redshift was measured by Maarten Schmidt in 1963. As you scan the constellations of the night sky. At such a large distance. Quasars flourished from 2 to 4 billion years after the Big Bang. many astronomers suspect that the demise of quasars is directly linked to the maturation of galaxies. How did quasars arise and why did they vanish? The answers to these questions appear closely related to the formation and evolution of galaxies. but each one outshines the combined light of all the stars in the galaxy surrounding it. This brilliant beacon was to become the first quasar with a measured distance. while that at far right comes from the Hubble Space Telescope. but you — a telescope-toting time traveler — are on another planet that formed very early in the history of the Milky Way. One of the nearest objects luminous enough to qualify as a quasar is 3C 273. The Earth and Sun have not yet formed. and galaxies themselves appear much more settled than they did several billion years ago. Ten billion years ago they were far more common than they are today. All rights reserved. Faced with this circumstantial evidence.” the number of quasars in the universe has steadily declined. and in ground-based photographs the starlike quasar almost entirely drowns out its indistinct. showing that the quasar resides within a luminous elliptical galaxy. Since that “golden age. the quasar whose unusually great distance.T he year is 10 billion B. fuzzy host. roughly 2 billion light-years from Earth. HST image courtesy Sofia Kirhakos. a period during which many of today’s galaxies were still under construction. But how? By G. Jet Jet . galaxies have gradually matured. Stars now form much less vigorously. Mark Voit Il lu st r ation by Don Dixon Where Quasars Live Not long ago. the galaxy around 3C 273 appears relatively tiny and dim. These dazzling blue pinpoints of light look like stars. was first measured. CFHT image courtesy Matthew Colless and David Schade. numerous galaxies are visible to your naked eyes because the universe is thirty times more densely packed than in the age of humankind. At the same time. Without much other evidence to Right: Two high-resolution views of 3C 273. Through the eyepiece of your telescope you can see bright pointlike objects at the centers of several nearby galaxies. but the fuzz revealed few details about the host galaxies themselves. Most astronomers were willing to accept the fuzzy light around this quasar and others as evidence that quasars lived inside distant galaxies.

the dusty aftermath of a galaxy merger. All rights reserved. Highresolution radio observations. Many are in obviously disturbed (top row) or interacting (middle row) systems. HST’s vantage from Earth orbit preempts this atmospheric blurring. However. though others seem to shine from textbook spirals and ellipticals (bottom row). designed to probe beneath the enshrouding clouds in the most luminous infrared One notable “hidden quasar” is the galaxy Markarian 231. much of their gas collects at the center of the morass. many of the host galaxies surrounding these quasars appear to be disturbed by collisions with other galaxies. the brilliant light from such a starburst remains shrouded in its birth cocoon of dusty gas. The nuclei of these unusual galaxies pump out a power equivalent to billions of Suns. they inhabit elliptical galaxies more commonly than expected. JASON SURACE / CALTECH NASA go on. many astronomers believed that quasars lived largely in spiral galaxies because that is where we find the majority of active galactic nuclei. in fact. During the golden age of quasars. Glare blinds us from seeing anything close to the dominant light source. yet modest compared to the quasars. 42 May 1999 Sky & Telescope ©1999 Sky Publishing Corp. Before HST. looking at a quasar through a telescope on the ground is loosely similar to driving directly into a sunset with a dirty windshield. then the decreasing frequency of collisions as galaxies drifted apart may account for quasars’ dwindling numbers. astronomers are getting their first good look at quasar host galaxies. making collisions between galaxies far more frequent. thus revealing the dimmer galaxy that lies beneath the glare. astronomers presumed that the galaxies around quasars were similar to some bright-centered galaxies closer to Earth. known as active galactic nuclei. For a few hundred million years. creating a concentration of fuel primed for an explosion of star formation (S &T: March 1998. HST is revealing that quasars are not particularly choosy about where they reside. If collisions between galaxies really did ignite quasars.These Hubble Space Telescope images confirm what ground-based views have long hinted at: quasars live in galaxies. galaxies were typically three to four times closer together than they are today. implying that they must have been much closer together in the distant past. Infrared observations of colliding systems confirm that many of them are indeed bursting with young stars. In addition. When two spiral galaxies collide. the real story might not be so simple. larger galaxy. Now that we can successfully channel the torrent of light from a quasar and limit how much it contaminates our pictures. astronomers have closely scrutinized some conspicuous galaxy collisions nearer to our own time and place in the cosmos. The most extreme of these colliding galaxies generate as much power as a modest quasar. page 48). Because the Earth’s atmosphere blurs our views of celestial objects. that look strikingly like quasars but are considerably less luminous. Many of the most luminous galaxies in our own corner of the universe are. In hopes of establishing a link between galaxy collisions and quasars. Edwin Hubble’s groundbreaking observations of galaxy motions in the 1920s established that galaxies generally move away from each other. galaxies were generally spreading out. making it seem quite plausible that they conceal quasars as well as young stars beneath their dusty shrouds. allowing the telescope to concentrate a quasar’s light into a much tinier spot. heating the dust until it emits copious infrared radiation. Images of quasars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) since its refurbishment in 1993 have verified that quasar fuzz was not an illusion: quasars do indeed live at the centers of galaxies (S&T: March 1996. pairs of colliding galaxies in the process of merging to form a single. staggeringly potent. page 12). Of course. adding credence to a long-held conjecture that interactions between galaxies are somehow involved in energizing the objects at their centers. Like a crowd leaving a sporting event. whose luminosities are measured in trillions of Suns. The idea that galaxy collisions initiate quasar activity . A few percent of the galaxies in our own cosmic neighborhood contain objects. is attractive because it would naturally explain why quasars were so common in the early universe. but not without plenty of jostling and bumping as they gradually moved apart.

for quasarlike nuclei buried deep within mantles of dust.galaxies. To find black holes we need to look for the disturbances they create with their LAURENT VIGROUX / CENTRE D’ÉTUDES DE SACLAY How Quasars Shine The discovery of quasars immediately posed astronomers with a major cosmic riddle: how do such compact objects generate so much light? Theorists Edwin Salpeter and Yakov B. black holes — which are themselves absolutely dark — can cause infalling matter to generate light with extraordinary efficiency. but proving it correct is another matter. often fail to find the bright. they settle into FRANÇOIS SCHWEIZER / CARNEGIE INSTITUTION OF WASHINGTON dust: powerful infrared emission. Instead. while Markarian 231 harbors a bona fide quasar at its heart. pointlike emission characteristic of quasars. pointlike radio emission. In one of nature’s more extreme paradoxes. Demonstrating conclusively that black holes indeed lie at the hearts of quasars is challenging because the holes themselves are invisible. and gas flowing at several percent of the speed of light. laying the blame on supermassive black holes. the dusty aftermath of a galaxy merger whose center displays all the hallmarks expected of a quasar buried deep within a blanket of obscuring Nearly next door in cosmological terms. some say. The glutted disk of gas orbiting a supermassive black hole therefore grows searingly hot and radiates enormous amounts of energy. According to the now-standard model for the quasar phenomenon. ©1999 Sky Publishing Corp. This model successfully accounts for the profuse luminescence of quasars. JASON SURACE / CALTECH NASA a swirling disk that circulates gradually inward in an extremely violent death spiral. Can you spot the quasar? Markarian 231 (opposite page) and Arp 220 (left) are both ultraluminous galaxies that give off copious far-infrared radiation — evidence. such observations have sometimes found that the cores of these galaxies hold nothing more exotic than the remnants of exploding stars (S &T: April 1998. The same awesome gravitational pull that prevents light from escaping a black hole accelerates anything in its vicinity to near-light speeds. But deeper scrutiny suggests that Arp 220’s glow almost certainly is fueled by prodigious star formation alone. Perhaps more quasars will spring to life within some of these luminous colliding galaxies over the next few hundred million years. All rights reserved. supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies attract gas clouds from surrounding interstellar space. they heat one another to temperatures measured in millions of degrees. One notable exception is the galaxy Markarian 231. Sky & Telescope May 1999 43 . As these clouds accumulate around the black hole. When gas clouds traveling at such phenomenal speeds collide. page 19). Only time will tell if a quasarlike glow is to follow tens or hundreds of millions of years hence. Zel’dovich independently guessed the likely answer a few months later. the two galaxies of the Antennae (NGC 4038 and 4039 in Corvus) are spawning numerous stars as they collide — a process that has revealed itself in infrared images like the one from the Infrared Space Observatory (lower right) and in visible-light frames from the Hubble Space Telescope (right).

Deep within the core of M106 (left) lies a warped disk of molecular gas clouds (artist’s impression above). but progress in the last decade has been swift. but their relics should still be with us. astronomers in Japan and the United States have been able to pinpoint the sources of these beams and to measure their motions with mind-boggling precision. Evidence that our own Milky Way contains a now-dormant black hole has grown much stronger during the past few years. Our current best case for a supermassive black hole rests on some remarkable observations of the galaxy M106. The number of active galactic nuclei that have yielded strong evidence for a central black hole can still be counted on one hand. the zone within which a supermassive black hole’s gravity dominates a galaxy’s central regions is comparatively small. immense gravitational fields. stimulated by Xrays from the nucleus. Here space artist Dana Barry has depicted an accretion-fed galactic nucleus like those believed to lie at the hearts of quasars. Germany) with the New Technology Telescope in Chile and more recently by Andrea Ghez (UCLA) at Keck Observatory in Hawaii — clearly show that stars at the center of our galaxy are orbiting an invisible concentration of matter. traced with radio telescopes. are sending out intense microwave signals quite similar to laser beams. or it’s something so inconceivably strange that it has so far defied the grasp of human imagination. Using a continent-wide network of radio telescopes. Orbiting the active nucleus of this galaxy are gas clouds whose water molecules. Seeking Dormant Monsters Quasars are much less common today than they once were.SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE Seeing the unseen. These water-bearing gas clouds — which as a group span less than 0. 44 May 1999 Sky & Telescope ©1999 Sky Publishing Corp. Time-lapse infrared pictures — taken by Andreas Eckart and Reinhard Genzel (Max Planck Institute. page 10). compact object 36 million times more massive than our Sun. Once created. lurking hidden at the centers of normal-looking galaxies throughout the universe. also known as NGC 4258 (S &T: April 1995. The most convincing signature of a black hole would be a group of objects rapidly orbiting something extremely massive but completely invisible. Again. but some theorists argue that most of the radiation generated in its vicinity gets swept into the hole along with the infalling gas. That object is almost certainly a black hole that powers the galaxy’s mildly active nucleus — and it may have powered a quasar in the distant past. As- JAPANESE NATIONAL ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY Our current best case for a supermassive black hole rests on some remarkable observations of the galaxy M106. the central object must be either a black hole or something even more exotic. However. amounting to less than 1 arcsecond: the apparent width of a single star in our own Milky Way on a good night of ground-based observing. then these holes must linger on. If gigantic black holes truly powered a multitude of quasars some 10 billion years ago. From the orbital speeds of these stars the scientists deduce a mass between two and three million times our Sun’s for the unseen object. Either the object they’re circling is a black hole. Perhaps it has run out of interstellar gas to consume. . All rights reserved. Kunihiko Okano’s visible-light CCD image was taken with a 12-inch reflector. black holes are virtually impossible to destroy. betray the presence of an invisible. Their motions. Exactly why the black hole at our galaxy’s core doesn’t glow like a quasar remains a mystery.0003 arcsecond in the sky — orbit a dark object weighing 36 million Suns in nearly perfect circles mere light-months across.

leaving few clues behind for astronomers to decipher. Because these observations do not require the source of this extra gravity to be especially compact. Hence. In almost every galaxy where astronomers have looked hard enough. as- This sequence of 1-arcsecond-wide near-infrared images. Generally speaking. shows the motions of individual stars over a 4-year time frame: motions that betray the presence of a black hole in the center of our galaxy. They then have pursued high-resolution HST images to see how tightly packed these stars are around each galaxy’s nucleus. its hibernation may be only temporary. Something else dark and GARY BOWER / NASA –300 –200 –100 0 100 200 300 Velocity of gas (km per sec) AURA A taste of treats to come? The Hubble Space Telescope’s new imaging spectrograph. However. Situated high above the Earth’s distorting atmosphere. According to such models. shining brightly as an active galactic nucleus for millions of years. the collective evidence for black holes in dozens more has become easier to accept. The black holes that once powered quasars must now weigh at least 100 million times more than the Sun. Three million Suns may sound like a lot of mass. STIS. the black hole at the center of our galaxy currently devours small portions of matter in relative secrecy. But two factors complicate this quest. Sky & Telescope May 1999 45 . yet for a supermassive black hole. trophysicist Ramesh Narayan (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and others have shown that when black holes are put on a diet. If no black hole is present. Future STIS observations may help establish whether dormant quasar engines are ubiquitous in galaxy cores. and their large distances prohibit us from measuring the motions of individual stars. astronomers hope to progress from mere discovery to a useful census of the black holes in our corner of the universe. instead of focusing on dramatic motions within a few light-years of a black hole. astronomers seek out subtler disturbances in the orbits of the myriad stars that lie tens to hundreds of light-years from galaxy nuclei. an elliptical galaxy roughly 60 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster. Measurements of black holes in distant quasars will have to wait a little bit longer. The prospects look bright for additional black-hole discoveries in the near future. motions in galaxy cores cannot be accounted for with the gravitational forces from stars alone. handily obtained this black-holerevealing spectrum (inset) of ionized gas in M84. the case for a black hole in any particular one of these galaxies is not overwhelmingly strong. but the necessary technology is rapidly developing. By and large. Astronomers in search of these slumbering monsters recently gained a powerful new tool with the installation of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) into HST in February 1997. looking for commotion in their cores. If some cosmic event were to dump a new load of gaseous fuel into our galaxy’s core. the central black hole would almost certainly flare back up. And as these discoveries roll in. Dormant black holes in other galaxies usually do not conveniently illuminate orbiting gas clouds. taken with the Keck I telescope. very little energy escapes from the trickle of gas that does flow in. Because it’s unlikely that we’ll ever build a telescope 100 times bigger than Hubble.1996 1997 1998 ANDREA GHEZ 1995 massive is needed to balance the books. But with strong evidence now in hand for black holes at the centers of galaxies like M106 and the Milky Way. they do not. STIS is ideally suited to measuring the orbital motions of stars and gas within the centers of galaxies because it can discern orbiting material up to 10 times closer to a black hole than most ground-based instruments can. they have done so with spectroscopes on large ground-based telescopes. To find them we need to peer into the hearts of our neighboring galaxies. Dissecting galactic nuclei that lie billions of light-years away will require instruments able to pick out details 100 times finer than Hubble currently resolves. then the stars we see in the HST images should generate enough gravity to explain the orbital motions we observe from the ground. 500 lightyears ©1999 Sky Publishing Corp. it’s relatively puny. During the next few years both the number and the precision of black-hole mass measurements should rise. All rights reserved.

Some of the world’s largest telescopes — including the Milky Way twin 10-meter Keck reflectors on Mauna Kea and 109 1010 1011 European Southern ObBulge luminosity (Suns) servatory’s four 8-meter telescopes on top of Cerro Paranal. John Kor. since the most massive galaxies tend to harbor the most massive holes. when the universe as we know it was most The latest evidence suggests that actively under construction. . capitalizing on the wavelike properties of light to see as clearly as a single telescope nearly 200 meters across. long a staple of radio astronomy. These clouds. partially overlapping the universe’s golden age for star formation (though both curves will remain in doubt until laborious surveys. fragmented. 46 May 1999 Sky & Telescope Quasar luminosity density (relative units) 109 Black Holes in Galaxy Cores Stellar heavy-element formation rate (relative units) Black-hole mass (Suns) 1010 0 0.6 servations of such distant happenMichigan). Courtesy Patrick Osmer. than the are hopeful that the interplay becombined mass of the old stars in tween the study of quasars and ulthe galaxy around it. while preliminary. its oldest popula. some theorists believe that the inexorable pull of gravity destines such a dense cloud of leftovers to become a supermassive black hole. But the ground-based mass distances. NICMOS. Without any clear alternative. mers’ interest in potential links between galaxy formation and the quasar phenomenon. These speculations about black-hole formation in collapsing primordial clouds remain unverified.star-formation history. and. the formation of a massive central black hole was a necessary consequence of galaxy birth. Mark Voit is an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and a coauthor of The Cosmic Perspective. formed the stars we see today in elliptical galaxies and in the bulges of spirals. tion of stars.8 Lookback time (universe’s age) ©1999 Sky Publishing Corp.4 0. Quite possibly. which consists entirely of old stars. Perhaps this coincidence of the era of quasars with the galaxy. unlikely to be some of the mysteries surrounding accidental. shrank. This technological leap will bring distant quasars into much clearer view and may even show us how supermassive black holes have developed over time. are completed). As these major ground-based facilities refine infrared interferometry during the next decade they will be joined by NASA’s Space Interferometry Mission. Could this be a clue to the origin and fate of quasars? Courtesy Douglas Richstone. Some gas is always left over. subject to the crushing force of their own gravity. whose coolant evaporated uring the starlight emanating from galaxies at a variety of prematurely in January. star formation is never 100 percent efficient.formed between 3 and 7 billion years after the Big Bang.and hence at many different epochs in the past. galaxies originally formed from collapsing clouds of primordial hydrogen gas. and in a collapsing protogalactic cloud this gas might have settled to the center without forming stars.2 0. on average. astronomers times less. Star production has clearly been ready show an intriguing trend: the size of a galaxy’s declining for the last 5 billion years or so. By measinfrared camera. but it’s less clear black hole is related to the size of the galaxy itself. But our deepest surveys of the cosmos are revealing a curious correspondence between the formation of stars in the uniQuasars and Galaxy Evolution STIS observations of supermassive black holes — possi. now in progress. a college-level astronomy textbook published last December by Addison-Wesley. to visual and infrared observing. we may not have found that a supermassive know the truth for some time to black hole weighs roughly 200 come. a black hole in a spiral galaxy has a mass pro. Images like the Hubbly the one-time sites of now-quiet quasars — were ble Deep Field show us galaxies at many different distances postponed in order to make the best use of HST’s near. Nevertheless. Because obDouglas Richstone (University of 0.primary era of star formation is just a red herring. If this central concentration of gas was massive enough and hot enough. Redshift betting that it is not. a black hole in an elliptical an era that partly overlaps the golden age of quasars. According to currently favored cosmological theories. This emergtradeep imaging surveys will solve ing relationship. Early results from these precisely.verse and the production of quasars. All rights reserved.1 0. a visible-light mission slated for launch in 2005.108 107 106 108 M87 Astronomers have found that black holes seem to “know” something about the galaxies they live in. 2 to 4 billion years after the Big Bang.6 0. But more and more astronomers are mendy (University of Hawaii).surveys indicate that most of the stars in the universe portional to that of the galaxy’s bulge. 1 G. quasars peaked in abundance some tronomers are applying the techniques of interferometry. we are beginning to reconstruct the universe’s measurements described above. has renewed astronothis remarkable epoch. al. More when the production rate peaked. Similarly. However. during the first few billion years after the Big Bang. has a mass proportional to that of the galaxy as a whole. and their colleagues ings are so difficult.6 1.2 3. it would not have been able to fragment into star-forming clouds as it continued to collapse. Chile — have been designed to work in concert.3 0.