With the help of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), astronomers discovered and studied in detail the most distant radio emission source known to date.
The source is a “radio-strong” quasar – a shiny object with powerful jets emitting at radio wavelengths – which is so far away that its light has taken 13 billion years to reach us. The discovery could provide important clues to help astronomers understand the beginning of the Universe.
Quasars are very bright objects that lie at the center of some galaxies and are powered by supermassive black holes. As the black hole consumes the surrounding gas, energy is released, allowing astronomers to spot them even when they are very far away.
The newly discovered quasar, nicknamed P172 + 18, is so far away that its light has traveled about 13 billion years to reach us: we see it as it was when the Universe was barely 780 million years old. As more distant quasars have been discovered, this is the first time that astronomers have been able to identify telltale signatures of radio jets in a quasar so early in the history of the Universe. Only about 10% of quasars – which astronomers classify as “radio strong” – have jets that glow at radio frequencies.
The P172 + 18 is powered by a black hole roughly 300 million times larger than our Sun, which consumes gas at an astounding rate. “The black hole consumes matter very quickly, increasing in mass at one of the highest rates ever seen,” says astronomer Chiara Mazzucchelli, ESO member in Chile, who led the discovery with Eduardo Bañados from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. in Germany.
Astronomers believe there is a link between the rapid growth of supermassive black holes and the powerful radio jets spotted in quasars like P172 + 18. The jets are believed to be able to disrupt gas around the black hole, increasing speed to which the gas falls. Therefore, the study of radio-strong quasars can provide important information on how black holes in the beginning of the Universe reached their supermassive size soon after the Big Bang.
“I find it very exciting to discover ‘new’ black holes for the first time, and to provide an additional cornerstone for understanding the Early Universe, where we came from, and ultimately ourselves,” says Mazzucchelli.
P172 + 18 was first recognized as a distant quasar, after being previously identified as a radio source, at the Magellan Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile by Bañados and Mazzucchelli. “As soon as we got the data, we inspected it with the naked eye, and we knew immediately that we had discovered the most distant radio-strong quasar known to date,” says Bañados.
However, due to the short observation time, the team did not have enough data to study the object in detail. A wave of observations with other telescopes followed, including with the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT, which allowed them to deepen the characteristics of this quasar, including the determination of the properties. keys such as the mass of the black hole and the speed at which it eats. the material of its environment. Other telescopes that contributed to the study included the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory and the Keck Telescope in the United States.
While the team is excited about their discovery, to appear in The astrophysical journal, they believe this radio-strong quasar could be the first of a multitude to be found, possibly at even greater cosmological distances. “This discovery makes me optimistic and I believe – and I hope – that the distance record will be broken soon,” said Bañados.
Observations with facilities such as ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, and with ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) could help discover and further study these early-universe objects. .
This research is presented in the article “The discovery of a radio-strong quasar with strong accretion at z = 6.82” to appear in The Astrophysics Journal.
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