HomeScience and ResearchSpaceCosmic X-ray Breakthrough: The Most Luminous Quasar Ever Seen by Astronomers

Cosmic X-ray Breakthrough: The Most Luminous Quasar Ever Seen by Astronomers

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Astronomers were surprised as “no prior X-ray observatory has ever observed this source despite its extreme power.” Although it is at a huge distance from Earth, new observations offer “a unique glimpse of what such powerful quasars look like.”

In a groundbreaking study published in the prestigious Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of researchers has captured a mesmerizing glimpse into the captivating realm of quasars. Their focus? The enigmatic SMSS J114447.77-430859.3, affectionately known as J1144, which has emerged as the most radiant quasar witnessed in cosmic history.

Situated within a galaxy positioned an astonishing 9.6 billion light years away, nestled amidst the celestial constellations of Centaurus and Hydra, J1144 exudes unparalleled power, outshining our Sun by an awe-inspiring factor of 100,000 billion. This unique proximity to Earth, unlike any other comparably luminous sources, has bestowed upon astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to penetrate the veil surrounding the black hole fueling this cosmic marvel and explore its intricate interactions with the surrounding cosmos.

Led by the brilliant minds of Dr. Elias Kammoun, a distinguished postdoctoral researcher at the esteemed Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), and Zsofi Igo, an accomplished PhD candidate at the illustrious Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), this exceptional research endeavor harnessed the power of cutting-edge observations to unravel the profound secrets hidden within J1144.

Quasars, extraordinary celestial objects known for their immense brightness and remote distances, derive their luminosity from the gravitational capture of gas by supermassive black holes. Often described as active galactic nuclei (AGN), these remarkable entities emit copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation across a wide range of wavelengths, including radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray.

Originally detected in visible wavelengths during the SkyMapper Southern Survey (SMSS) in 2022, the enigmatic quasar J1144 has since become the subject of extensive study. Researchers harnessed the combined power of various space-based observatories, including the eROSITA instrument aboard the Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma (SRG) observatory, the ESA XMM-Newton observatory, NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift observatory.

By analyzing the collective data obtained from these observatories, the research team successfully determined the temperature of the X-ray emissions emanating from the quasar. Remarkably, they measured this temperature to be approximately 350 million Kelvin, surpassing the surface temperature of the Sun by over 60,000 times. Furthermore, their investigations revealed that the black hole residing at the heart of the quasar boasts a mass around 10 billion times that of the Sun, growing at an astonishing rate of approximately 100 solar masses annually.

In a surprising twist, the X-ray emissions from this celestial entity exhibited fluctuations within a matter of days—a phenomenon rarely witnessed in quasars housing black holes of comparable magnitude to that found within J1144. Typically, the timeframe over which such colossal black holes demonstrate variability stretches across months, if not years. Furthermore, the meticulous observations uncovered a fascinating phenomenon: as the black hole engulfs a portion of the surrounding gas, formidable gusts of gas are expelled, generating tremendous winds that infuse the host galaxy with copious amounts of energy.

“We were very surprised,” comments lead author Dr. Kammoun, “that no prior X-ray observatory has ever observed this source despite its extreme power.

“Similar quasars are usually found at much larger distances, so they appear much fainter, and we see them as they were when the Universe was only 2-3 billion years old.

“J1144 is a very rare source as it is so luminous and much closer to Earth (although still at a huge distance!), giving us a unique glimpse of what such powerful quasars look like.”

Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

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