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NASA Hubble Telescope Captuers 'Teen' Years of Quasars in Distant Galaxies

First Posted: Jun 22, 2015 12:14 PM EDT

NASA has taken a closer look at the "teenage years" of quasars. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have uncovered the early formative years of the brightest objects in the universe.

"The Hubble observations are definitely telling us that the peak of quasar activity in the early universe is driven by galaxies colliding and then merging together," said Eilat Glikman, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We are seeing quasars in their teenage years, when they are growing quickly and all messed up."

A quasar is a contraction of "quasi-stellar object," and pours out the light of as much as one trillion stars from a region of space that's smaller than our solar system. The source of this light is a gush of energy that comes from supermassive black holes that come from inside the cores of distant galaxies. However, scientists have long wondered what causes these beacons to shine in the first place.

"We've been trying to understand why galaxies start feeding their central black holes, and galaxy collisions are one leading hypothesis," said Kevin Schawinski, one of the researchers, in a news release. "These observations show that the brightest quasars in the universe really do live in merging galaxies."

In this case, the researchers came up with a way to use Hubble's sensitivity at near-infrared wavelengths of light to see host galaxies by aiming at quasars that are heavily shrouded in dust. As galaxies merge, gravitational forces cause the gas in the disks of colliding galaxies to fall directly toward the supermassive black hole. The accretion zone around the black hole is so engorged with fuel that it converts it into a gusher of radiation that blazes across the universe.

The findings reveal a bit more about how quasars begin to shine. This, in turn, may tell researchers a bit more about the evolution of galaxies and black holes.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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