Newfound quasar wins title 'most distant in the universe'
NASA/JPL NEWS RELEASE
Posted: Feb. 22, 2000
A team of astronomers identified the candidate after nights of deep (long-exposure) imaging at the California Institute of Technology's 200-inch (5-meter) Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California and at the National Science Foundation's 157-inch (4-meter) Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak, AZ. A spectral analysis of the quasar's light was then completed at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
"As soon as we saw the spectrum, we knew we had something special," said Dr. Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, who played a key role in the discovery. "In images, quasars can look very much like stars, but a spectral analysis of a quasar's light reveals its true character. This quasar told us that it was 'An Ancient' -- one of the Universe's first structures."
Quasars are extremely luminous bodies that were more common in the early Universe. Packed into a volume roughly equal to our Solar System, a quasar emits an astonishing amount of energy -- up to 10,000 times that of the whole Milky Way galaxy. Scientists believe that quasars get their fuel from super-massive black holes that eject enormous amounts of energy as they consume surrounding matter.
A quasar's "redshift" measures how fast the object is moving away from us as the Universe expands, and is a good indicator of cosmic distances. The faster it moves away, the more its light shifts to the red part of the spectrum (toward longer wavelengths), which means the faster an object appears to move, the farther away it is. At a redshift of 5.5, light travelling from Stern's quasar has journeyed about 13 billion years to get here. That means the quasar existed at a time when the Universe was less than 8 percent of its current age.
"The odds against us finding a quasar at a redshift of 5.5 were fairly large, especially when you consider how small a portion of the sky we were observing -- 10 by 10 arcminutes. To get an idea of how small that is, try holding a dime at arms- length against the night sky; it's roughly the size of FDR's ear," said Stern. Until the last few years, no one had discovered an object that came close to a redshift of 5.0.
High-redshift quasars are vitally important to understanding one of the biggest mysteries confronting scientists: how the Universe went from the smooth uniformity of its youth to the clumpy, galaxy-strewn formations we observe today. Astronomers believe that the young universe began in a hot, dense state shortly after the Big Bang. Matter in the Universe was ionized back then, meaning that electrons were not bound to protons. As the Universe aged, matter cooled enough for electrons and protons to combine, or to become neutral. As the first stars and galaxies formed, they reheated matter between galaxies, creating the ionized intergalactic medium we see today in our local Universe. The million-dollar question for today's cosmologists is when this second transition from neutral to ionized gas occurred.
"Finding a quasar at this distance is like turning on a flashlight at the edge of the universe," said Stern. "Because quasars are more luminous than distant galaxies at the same redshift, they act as the brightest flashlights, allowing us to study everything that has ever developed between us and the quasar."
The recent findings were presented in an issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper was written by Daniel Stern and Peter Eisenhardt of JPL; Hyron Spinrad, Steve Dawson, and Adam Stanford of the University of California; Andrew Bunker of Cambridge University; and Richard Elston of the University of Florida.
The Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, CA, is owned and operated by Caltech. Kitt Peak National Observatory is a division of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under Cooperative Agreement with the National Science Foundation. The W.M. Keck Observatory, atop Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, is managed by a partnership among Caltech, the University of California, and NASA. JPL is a division of Caltech, Pasadena, CA.
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