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Physics LibreTexts

27: Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes

During the first half of the twentieth century, astronomers viewed the universe of galaxies as a mostly peaceful place. They assumed that galaxies formed billions of years ago and then evolved slowly as the populations of stars within them formed, aged, and died. That placid picture completely changed in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Today, astronomers can see that the universe is often shaped by violent events, including cataclysmic explosions of supernovae, collisions of whole galaxies, and the tremendous outpouring of energy as matter interacts in the environment surrounding very massive black holes. The key event that began to change our view of the universe was the discovery of a new class of objects: quasars.

  • 27.1: Quasars
    The first quasars discovered looked like stars but had strong radio emission. Their visible-light spectra at first seemed confusing, but then astronomers realized that they had much larger redshifts than stars. The quasar spectra obtained so far show redshifts ranging from 15% to more than 96% the speed of light. Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope show that quasars lie at the centers of galaxies and that both spirals and ellipticals can harbor quasars.
  • 27.2: Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars really are
    Both active galactic nuclei and quasars derive their energy from material falling toward, and forming a hot accretion disk around, a massive black hole. This model can account for the large amount of energy emitted and for the fact that the energy is produced in a relatively small volume of space. It can also explain why jets coming from these objects are seen in two directions: those directions are perpendicular to the accretion disk.
  • 27.3: Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    Quasars and galaxies affect each other: the galaxy supplies fuel to the black hole, and the quasar heats and disrupts the gas clouds in the galaxy. The balance between these two processes probably helps explain why the black hole seems always to be about 1/200 the mass of the spherical bulge of stars that surrounds the black hole. Quasars were much more common billions of years ago than they are now, and astronomers speculate that they mark an early stage in the formation of galaxies.
  • 27.E: Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes (Exercises)

Thumbmnails: The deepest picture of the sky in visible light (left) shows huge numbers of galaxies in a tiny patch of sky, only 1/100 the area of the full Moon (credit modification of work by NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)).