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Newfound quasar wins title 'most distant in the universe'
Posted: Feb. 22, 2000

  Ancient quasar
Composite color image the newly-discovered, distant quasar, created from deep images obtained at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Palomar Observatory. The very red point of light in the center of the image is newly discovered quasar "RD J030117+002025" in the constellation Cetus. While seemingly small and unobtrusive, this ancient quasar is vital to understanding when and how the first structures in the universe came to be. At a redshift (an indicator of distance) of 5.5, this quasar is one of the earliest known structures in the Universe, forming shortly after the Big Bang. Its light has traveled some 13 - 14 billion light years to reach us. Finding a quasar is like turning on a flashlight at the edge of the universe because it allows us to probe everything that has ever formed between us and the quasar. All other stars and galaxies in this image formed after the quasar. Photo: courtesy NASA/JPL
If Guinness had a Book of Cosmic Records, a newly discovered quasar in the constellation Cetus would make the front page. This distant quasar easily skates past the previous record-holder, placing it among the earliest known structures ever to form in the Universe.

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.

Spectrum of the newly discovered distant quasar, obtained with the Keck Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The spectrum represents 4.5 hours of integration. The horizontal axis is wavelength (color), increasing (getting redder) to the right. The vertical axis shows position on the sky. The vertical stripes evident on the spectrum are residuals from night sky lines, ie., wavelengths where the night sky is bright. Horizontal stripes are sources. The bottom source is a nearby galaxy emitting light from the blue to the red. The central source is the distant quasar; its distance causes the spectrum to shift to red wavelengths, causing the source to be very faint at the bluer (left-ward) portion of the spectrum. Photo: NASA/JPL
Analyzing the spectrum of the new quasar will be very useful for testing whether the universe was neutral or ionized at redshift 5.5. As a quasar's light makes its journey toward us, the light is absorbed by any matter that lies in its path. Scientists have learned that clouds of neutral hydrogen absorb more than half of a quasar's light at high redshift (in the early Universe). That finding is central to understanding when and how super-massive black holes, quasars, and other structures condensed from large, high-density clouds of hydrogen soon after the Big Bang. The new quasar will also shed light on how matter was distributed at earlier stages of cosmic history.

"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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