The quality of quasars

quasars, stars, blackholes.

The quality of quasars

The scientists that explore the solar system and universe are usually astronomers and astrophysicists. They have both a lively imagination and a lively curiosity. They love discovering new strange and beautiful mysteries in outer space. And they also love to share their new knowledge with their colleagues first, and then with the general public. Is the study of the galaxy an obsession with them? It sure is!

Sometimes discoveries occur all at once. But more often, researchers have to track down new and exciting phenomena like Sherlock Holmes did in fiction – following a series of clues and indicators that lead to the conclusive evidence, after sitting and thinking it out into the wee hours of the night. Your authentic research scientist rarely gets a good night’s sleep!

Quasars, for instance, were not an overnight discovery. It took a series of shrewd deductions to discover these bizarre and still mysterious galactic pulses that inhabit the far reaches of the universe.

In the early 1960’s, when the first radio telescopes were set up in the deserts of the Southwest, they picked up some very curious signals, or pulses. These were not radio waves from the Sun or the planets in our solar system. They seemed totally inexplicable, and ran contrary to the known laws of wave lengths. They were small bright objects, neither exo-planet or star, that emitted, to put it in the vernacular, “weird vibes.” The radio telescope researchers named them quasi-stellar-objects. Which was soon shortened to quasars. (Scientists don’t like big long words any more than the general public.)

Theories abounded as to what these quasars could be. Something fighting off the pull of a black hole? Or perhaps interstellar dust congealed into a mass that had gone through a wormhole? These objects did not fit current astronomical definitions, especially with their unearthly frequencies. For a while, there was enthusiasm among the wild-eyed speculative type that these strange objects were satellites sent from some alien planet that were sweeping through the galaxy broadcasting arcane messages of peace and love and quantum physics. But it was soon evident to even the most maniacal researcher that these waves, these frequencies, were totally random. There was no code involved. These bursts of radio waves were completely meaningless. And it turned out that these quasars were traveling away from the center of the galaxy at incredible speed – almost at the speed of light. And they were emitting such tremendous bursts of energy that their power could have generated enough electricity to run all the washers and dryers ever made, ad infinitum. And if you’ve ever paid the utility bill on a heavily used washer and dryer you know that that is a LOT!

In the 1980’s astrophysicists and astronomers decided that quasars were just a part of the expanding universe, a symptom, as it were, of interstellar growing pains. And when viewed from different angles, using different measuring tools, a quasar might be a pulsar or part of a radio wave galaxy called a blazar, instead of a separate and unique phenomena. If you’re starting to get confused, join the club. Astronomers and astrophysicists have argued so much about quasars and changed theories so often that if you called a quasar ‘pixie dust’ you could be in line for a Nobel Prize in Astronomy.

Still, it was not comforting to scientist who dreamed of some day exploring the ends of the universe to realize that some quasars were vomiting forth vast streams of intense radioactivity as well. Any kind of space vehicle that ran into one of these streams of deadly radiation would be vaporized. Making the thought of interstellar space travel even more perilous than before.

Researchers also discovered at about the same time that black holes create an accretion ring around themselves. This is a ring of interstellar debris that circles the black hole at such incredibly high speed that it sends out a flood of gamma radiation. And that many quasars inhabit these accretion rings. They seem right at home in them. So in the 90’s scientists posited that quasars were the product of the active galactic nucleus of these massive black holes that are at the center of every galaxy. Called an AGN, these power beams shoot out millions of light years from black holes. And what do they do to any object they encounter? Maybe, say some theorists, they turn ordinary asteroids and tether-less moons into quasars! Sort of a Jekyll and Hyde thing – one moment a peaceful harmless asteroid minding its own business, and the next moment a raging quasar shooting out monstrous beams of radiation!

On the other hand, some scientists are now convinced that a quasar is nothing more than the black hole itself, as it runs out of fuel. As it falters, the black hole sends out a burst of illumination as well as radio waves – perhaps like the death throes of some fabled fallen beast in a fairy tale.

So what do quasars have to do with you? Not much. They are, at the moment, a very distant phenomena that, as far as scientists can tell at this time, has no direct affect or bearing on the inhabitants of planet Earth. They are not A Message from the Stars or a Death Ray aimed at us. They are, basically, part of the white noise of the universe.