Astronomers Discover Quasar That Has Eaten All Of Its Gas Too Quickly

Posted: Jan 12 2016, 10:04pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News

Astronomers Discover a Quasar that has Swallowed All of its Gas Too Quickly
Artistic conception of the quasar as it appears in early 2015. Credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

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Quasar J1011+5442 has eaten all of its fill within a handful of years and has changed dramatically over those years.

Astronomers have discovered a quite distant quasar that has consumed all of its fuel and is displaying dramatic changes in its brightness within just a few years.

A team of researchers named Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have found that the quasar SDSS J1011+5442 is running out of gas after its massive black hole has used up its entire fill. All of this happened in just few years between observations.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a quasar shut off this dramatically, this quickly,” said lead author Jessie Runnoe from Pennsylvania State University. “Essentially, it has run out of food, at least for the moment. We were fortunate to catch it before and after.”

Quasars are the brightest objects in the universe found at the center of giant galaxies. They are usually powered by black holes that are millions of times more massive than the sun. These massive black holes gobble up hot gas in the surrounding area and discharge vast amount of light radio waves.

SDSS astronomers made the first observations of quasar J1011+5442 in 2003 which allowed them to understand how much gas has been swallowed by the black hole. Researchers particularly looked at the hydrogen Alpa, a specific deep red visible line to find how much gas was falling into black hole. Then, in early 2015, observations were made again to see the difference but this time around some incredible changes have been noticed in the distant quasar.

“The difference was stunning and unprecedented,” said co-author John Ruan from University of Washington. “The hydrogen-alpha emission dropped by a factor of 50 in less than 12 years, and the quasar now looks like a normal galaxy.”

The changes in quasar were so visible and drastic that the scientists started to call it “changing-look quasar.”

SDSS researchers also considered two other possible explanations of why quasar ran out of gas. They thought that a thick layer of dust might have passed through the host galaxy and caused it to drop its brightness by obscuring the black hole at its center. Another possibility was that the bright quasar in 2003 was just a temporary flare which was produced by the black hole ripping apart a nearby star. They ruled out both of the explanations and reached the conclusion that the quasar should have eaten up all of glowing hot gas in its vicinity over the past 10 years or so.

The quasar marks the first major discovery of Time-Domain Spectroscopic Survey, a component of SDSS and will continue observing it for the next several years.

“We are used to thinking of the sky as unchanging. The SDSS gives us a great opportunity to see that changes as it happens,” said Scott Anderson, astronomy professor at University of Washington and principal investigator of Time Domain Spectroscopic Survey. “We found this quasar because we went back to study thousands of quasars seen before. This discovery was only possible because the SDSS is so deep and has continued so long.”

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