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Hubble Space Telescope Sees a Gravitationally Lensed Quasar

Photo: NASA, ESA and J.A. Muñoz (University of Valencia)

You’re looking at a picture of a quasar that’s beeing sucked into a black
hole, taken by the Hubble Space telescope. ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope
page explains:

While black holes themselves are invisible, the forces they unleash
cause some of the brightest phenomena in the Universe. Quasars —
short for quasi-stellar objects — are glowing discs of matter
that orbit supermassive black holes, heating up and emitting extremely
bright radiation as they do so.

“A quasar accretion disc has a typical size of a few light-days,
or around 100 billion kilometres across, but they lie billions of light-years
away. This means their apparent size when viewed from Earth is so small
that we will probably never have a telescope powerful enough to see
their structure directly,” explains Jose Muñoz, the lead
scientist in this study.

Until now, the minute apparent size of quasars has meant that most
of our knowledge of their inner structure has been based on theoretical
extrapolations, rather than direct observations.

The team therefore used an innovative method to study the quasar:
using the stars in an intervening galaxy as a scanning microscope to
probe features in the quasar’s disc that would otherwise be far
too small to see. As these stars move across the light from the quasar,
gravitational effects amplify the light from different parts of the
quasar, giving detailed colour information for a line that crosses through
the accretion disc.

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November 6th, 2011

Stranger to the World


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