Astronomers at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) in Spain say they have at last discovered a population of quiet, distant quasars. Nearly all the quasars we see at great distances are ultraluminous, and no wonder. They must be extremely luminous in order for us to glimpse them over the vastness of space. And yet astronomers have thought there must be, at those same vast distances, some quasars that were relatively quiet. Now, they say, they’ve found some and have been able to compare them both with the ultraluminous quasars in the early universe and also with closer quasars of moderate luminosity.
The farther away we look in space, the deeper we are looking into the past. Thus the ultraluminous quasars at great distances are showing us events taking place in the early universe: mergers of great galaxies containing gigantic black holes, with masses equivalent to billions of our suns, at their cores. These objects and events in the young universe are what we see as the distant quasars. The question has been, do the distant, tremendously high energy quasars have local relatives, in their same region of space and time, with much lower energy? And are those quiet quasars at great distances the dying versions of formerly ultraluminous quasars? Or are they something else entirely?
Jack W. Sulentic, astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC), who is leading the research, said:
Astronomers have always wanted to compare past and present, but it has been almost impossible because at great distances we can only see the brightest objects and nearby such objects no longer exist.
Until now we have compared very luminous distant quasars with weaker ones close by, which is tantamount to comparing household light bulbs with the lights in a football stadium.
Now, these astronomers say, they have detected the first distant, quiet quasars.
They say they employed the light-gathering power of the Gran Telescopio Canarias – known as GranTeCan or GTC telescope – located on the island of La Palma, in the Canary Islands in Spain. This telescope let Sulentic and his team obtain the first spectroscopic data from distant, low luminosity quasars similar to typical nearby ones.
They say their data are reliable enough to let them establish essential parameters of the quiet, distance quasars such as their chemical composition, and the mass of the central black hole or rate at which it absorbs surrounding gas and dust.
Quasars appear to evolve with distance. That is, the farther away they are in space, the brighter they are. This could indicate that quasars extinguish over time. Or it could be the result of an observational bias masking a different reality: that gigantic quasars evolving very quickly, most of them already extinct, coexist with a quiet population that evolves more slowly, but which our technological limitations have not allowed astronomers to study. Ascensión del Olmo, another IAA-CSIC researcher who took part in this study, said:
We have been able to confirm that, indeed, apart from the highly energetic and rapidly evolving quasars, there is another population that evolves slowly. This population of quasars appears to follow the quasar main sequence … There does not even seem to be a strong relation between this type of quasars, which we see in our environment and those ‘monsters’ that started to glow more than 10 billion years ago.
Are there also differences between distant, quiet quasars and the moderate quasars closer to us in space? These astronomers say there are, and these differences are not surprising. Jack W. Sulentic said:
The local quasars present a higher proportion of heavy elements such as aluminum, iron or magnesium, than the distant relatives, which most likely reflects enrichment by the birth and death of successive generations of stars.
Bottom line: Astronomers in Spain have been able to identify a population of quiet quasars located in the distant universe, that is, in the early universe. They have compared them both to ultraluminous quasars in the early universe and also to quasars closer to us in space and time … and found differences in both cases.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.