Astronomers have two massive, unexplained objects erupting from the universe’s brightest black hole. The supermassive black hole 3C 273 was discovered in 1959 during survey of cosmic radio sources as quasars (quasi-stellar objects). The light from these black holes is bright enough to be mistaken for starlight. Scientists have spent decades studying the centers of burning black holes. However, because the quasar is so bright, studying the galaxy in which it is located is nearly impossible. The quasar’s extraordinary brightness has left scientists largely ignorant of how it affects its host galaxy.

In new study, a team of researchers calibrated the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio in Chile to distinguish between the radiation glow of substar 3C 273 and the light produced by its host galaxy. They left behind radio waves from the quasar galaxy, which revealed two massive and intriguing radio structures never seen before.

One structure appears to be giant smear of radio light that surrounds the entire Milky Way. This radio fog collided with a second structure, a huge jet of energy known as an astrophysical jet, which also stretched tens of thousands of light-years.

This astrophysical journal published this study.

Astrophysical jets are mystery to scientists. They don’t know how or why these came about. The radiation from these jets can appear brighter or dimmer, depending on the radio frequencies at which they are viewed.

On the other hand, the massive radio structure surrounding galaxy 3C 273 shows consistent brightness regardless of frequency. This suggests that the two radio structures formed from independent, unrelated events.

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After testing multiple possibilities, the researchers concluded that the massive radio haze seen around the Milky Way is caused by star-forming hydrogen gas directly ionized by quasars. According to the researchers, this is the first time that ionized gas extending tens of thousands of light-years around supermassive black hole has been detected.

The discovery sheds light on long-standing astronomical conundrum: Can a quasar ionize enough gas in its host galaxy to prevent new stars from forming? To find out, the researchers compared the estimated mass of galactic gas to other galaxies of similar type and size. They found that while the quasar had ionized a lot of gas, star formation across the galaxy had not been suppressed.

This suggests that galaxies with radiating quasars at their centers can still thrive and grow.

“This discovery provides new avenue to study problems previously solved using optical observations,” said lead study author and associate professor Shinya Komugi of Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Now, the researchers hope to understand how galaxies evolve through interactions with core nuclei by applying the same technique to other quasars.


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