Combined Earth-Space radio array discovers superhot quasar interior

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The uncertainty of science: Data obtained by combining four ground-based radio telescopes with the Russian orbiting RadioAstron 10-meter radio telescope have detected temperatures of 10 trillion degrees in the quasar 3C 273, a hundred times hotter than predicted possible by theory.

Supermassive black holes, containing millions to billions times the mass of our Sun, reside at the centers of all massive galaxies. These black holes can drive powerful jets that emit prodigiously, often outshining all the stars in their host galaxies. But there is a limit to how bright these jets can be – when electrons get hotter than about 100 billion degrees, they interact with their own emission to produce X-rays and Gamma-rays and quickly cool down.

Astronomers have just reported a startling violation of this long-standing theoretical limit in the quasar 3C 273. “We measure the effective temperature of the quasar core to be hotter than 10 trillion degrees!” comments Yuri Kovalev (Astro Space Center, Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow, Russia), the RadioAstron project scientist. “This result is very challenging to explain with our current understanding of how relativistic jets of quasars radiate.”

In addition, the higher resolution of the radio images produced by this space/ground-based array was good enough to see the effect produced by the structure of the interstellar material between here and the quasar.


  • wodun

    OT: A guy rammed his car into the National Radio Astronomy Observatory on Mauna Kea. The articles says no link to the TMT protesters, but that seems unlikely.

  • Tom Billings

    One of the things I’d like to see the space science community doing more with is space-based interferometry, all through the spectrum. If this result holds up, its push to the theory side of physics could be tremendous. Among other things, this could be showing what happens when the Dark Matter/Dark Energy supposedly dominating the mass of the universe interacts with these galactic black holes.

    The combination of resolution and sensitivity shown possible here should make this a new standard for space-based astronomy. True, the computational and metrical requirements become extreme as you go to shorter wavelengths, but the ability to peer into other planetary and galactic systems is what will push theory hardest.

  • Garry

    A hundred times hotter would seem to make a huge, huge difference.

    For example, given that the model for heat radiation states that energy radiated is proportional to (absolute temperature) to the fourth power, cranking up temperature by a factor 100 would increase radiant energy by a factor of 100 million!

    Either the model is inaccurate, or there is a lot more radiant energy out there than we thought, which has to have some dramatic effects.

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