AskDefine | Define quasar

Dictionary Definition

quasar n : a starlike object that may send out radio waves and other forms of energy; large red shifts imply enormous recession velocities [syn: quasi-stellar radio source]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Quasar



quasi-stellar radio source


  1. One of over a thousand known extragalactic objects, starlike in appearance and having spectra with characteristically large redshifts, that are thought to be the most distant and most luminous objects in the universe. Also called quasi-stellar object.


  • Czech: kvazar, kvasar
  • Finnish: kvasaari
  • French: quasar
  • German: Quasar
  • Greek: κβάζαρ
  • Polish: kwazar
  • Slovene: kvazar

Extensive Definition

Since quasars exhibit properties common to all active galaxies, the emissions from quasars can be readily compared to those of small active galaxies powered by supermassive black holes. To create a luminosity of 1040 W (the typical brightness of a quasar), a super-massive black hole would have to consume the material equivalent of 10 stars per year. The brightest known quasars devour 1000 solar masses of material every year. The largest known is estimated to consume matter equivalent to 600 Earths per hour. Quasars 'turn on' and off depending on their surroundings, and since quasars cannot continue to feed at high rates for 10 billion years, after a quasar finishes accreting the surrounding gas and dust, it becomes an ordinary galaxy.
Quasars also provide some clues as to the end of the Big Bang's reionization. The oldest quasars (redshift > 4) display a Gunn-Peterson trough and have absorption regions in front of them indicating that the intergalactic medium at that time was neutral gas. More recent quasars show no absorption region but rather their spectra contain a spiky area known as the Lyman-alpha forest. This indicates that the intergalactic medium has undergone reionization into plasma, and that neutral gas exists only in small clouds.
One other interesting characteristic of quasars is that they show evidence of elements heavier than helium, indicating that galaxies underwent a massive phase of star formation, creating population III stars between the time of the Big Bang and the first observed quasars. Light from these stars may have been observed in 2005 using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, although this observation remains to be confirmed.

History of quasar observation

The first quasars were discovered with radio telescopes in the late 1950s. Many were recorded as radio sources with no corresponding visible object. Using small telescopes and the Lovell Telescope as an interferometer, they were shown to have a very small angular size. Hundreds of these objects were recorded by 1960 and published in the Third Cambridge Catalogue as astronomers scanned the skies for the optical counterparts. In 1960, radio source 3C 48 was finally tied to an optical object. Astronomers detected what appeared to be a faint blue star at the location of the radio source and obtained its spectrum. Containing many unknown broad emission lines, the anomalous spectrum defied interpretation — a claim by John Bolton of a large redshift was not generally accepted.
In 1962 a breakthrough was achieved. Another radio source, 3C 273, was predicted to undergo five occultations by the moon. Measurements taken by Cyril Hazard and John Bolton during one of the occultations using the Parkes Radio Telescope allowed Maarten Schmidt to optically identify the object and obtain an optical spectrum using the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. This spectrum revealed the same strange emission lines. Schmidt realized that these were actually spectral lines of hydrogen redshifted at the rate of 15.8 percent. This discovery showed that 3C 273 was receding at a rate of 47,000 km/s. This discovery revolutionized quasar observation and allowed other astronomers to find redshifts from the emission lines from other radio sources. As predicted earlier by Bolton, 3C 48 was found to have a redshift of 37% the speed of light.
The term quasar was coined by Chinese-born U.S. astrophysicist Hong-Yee Chiu in 1964, in Physics Today, to describe these puzzling objects:
Later it was found that not all (actually only 10% or so) quasars have strong radio emission (are 'radio-loud'). Hence the name 'QSO' (quasi-stellar object) is used (in addition to 'quasar') to refer to these objects, including the 'radio-loud' and the 'radio-quiet' classes.
One great topic of debate during the 1960s was whether quasars were nearby objects or distant objects as implied by their redshift. It was suggested, for example, that the redshift of quasars was not due to the expansion of space but rather to light escaping a deep gravitational well. However a star of sufficient mass to form such a well would be unstable and in excess of the Hayashi limit. Quasars also show unusual spectral emission lines which were previously only seen in hot gaseous nebulae of low density, which would be too diffuse to both generate the observed power and fit within a deep gravitational well. There were also serious concerns regarding the idea of cosmologically distant quasars. One strong argument against them was that they implied energies that were far in excess of known energy conversion processes, including nuclear fusion. At this time, there were some suggestions that quasars were made of some hitherto unknown form of stable antimatter and that this might account for their brightness. Others speculated that quasars were a white hole end of a wormhole. However, when accretion disc energy-production mechanisms were successfully modeled in the 1970s, the argument that quasars were too luminous became moot and today the cosmological distance of quasars is accepted by almost all researchers.
In 1979 the gravitational lens effect predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was confirmed observationally for the first time with images of the double quasar 0957+561.
In the 1980s, unified models were developed in which quasars were classified as a particular kind of active galaxy, and a general consensus emerged that in many cases it is simply the viewing angle that distinguishes them from other classes, such as blazars and radio galaxies. The huge luminosity of quasars results from the accretion discs of central supermassive black holes, which can convert on the order of 10% of the mass of an object into energy as compared to 0.7% for the p-p chain nuclear fusion process that dominates the energy production in sun-like stars.
This mechanism also explains why quasars were more common in the early universe, as this energy production ends when the supermassive black hole consumes all of the gas and dust near it. This means that it is possible that most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, have gone through an active stage (appearing as a quasar or some other class of active galaxy depending on black hole mass and accretion rate) and are now quiescent because they lack a supply of matter to feed into their central black holes to generate radiation.

Further reading

See also


  • Complete Cosmos - Discovery Science Channel
quasar in Arabic: نجم زائف
quasar in Bengali: কোয়াসার
quasar in Bosnian: Kvazar
quasar in Bulgarian: Квазар
quasar in Catalan: Quàsar
quasar in Czech: Kvasar
quasar in German: Quasar
quasar in Estonian: Kvasar
quasar in Modern Greek (1453-): Κβάζαρ
quasar in Spanish: Quásar
quasar in Esperanto: Kvazaro
quasar in Persian: اخترنما
quasar in French: Quasar
quasar in Galician: Quasar
quasar in Korean: 퀘이사
quasar in Croatian: Kvazar
quasar in Italian: Quasar
quasar in Hebrew: קוואזר
quasar in Latin: Quasar
quasar in Latvian: Kvazāri
quasar in Lithuanian: Kvazaras
quasar in Hungarian: Kvazár
quasar in Dutch: Quasar
quasar in Japanese: クエーサー
quasar in Norwegian: Kvasar
quasar in Polish: Kwazar
quasar in Portuguese: Quasar
quasar in Romanian: Quasar
quasar in Russian: Квазар
quasar in Simple English: Quasar
quasar in Slovak: Kvazar
quasar in Serbian: Квазар
quasar in Serbo-Croatian: Kvazar
quasar in Finnish: Kvasaari
quasar in Swedish: Kvasar
quasar in Tamil: துடிப்பண்டம்
quasar in Thai: เควซาร์
quasar in Vietnamese: Quasar
quasar in Turkish: Kuasar
quasar in Ukrainian: Квазари
quasar in Chinese: 类星体

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Beehive, Cepheid variable, Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, Hyades, Messier catalog, NGC, Pleiades, Seven Sisters, absolute magnitude, binary star, black hole, double star, dwarf star, fixed star, giant star, globular cluster, gravity star, magnitude, main sequence star, mass-luminosity law, neutron star, nova, open cluster, populations, pulsar, quasi-stellar radio source, radio star, red giant star, relative magnitude, sky atlas, spectrum-luminosity diagram, star, star catalog, star chart, star cloud, star cluster, stellar magnitude, supernova, variable star, white dwarf star
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