Tempest Brews In The Teacup Quasar

The Teacup quasar is home to a supermassive black hole. The image is a combination photos taken in X-rays (colored blue) with the Chandra X-ray Telescope and one in visible light from the Hubble Space Telescope shown in red and green. NASA/CXC/University of Cambridge/G. Lansbury et al; optical: NASA/STScI/W. Keel et al

Cup of tea, anyone? I met up with my friend John over the weekend for a cup of tea and conversation. We sat outside and discussed music, birds, books and the state of newspapers. I didn’t get to bring up quasars because I never found an opening, so I missed the chance to tell him all about the Teacup quasar, so named because of its shape. The outsized handle hints at the ferociously hot “brew” inside.

A quasar (QWAY-zar) is an ultra-bright galaxy that gets its brilliance from material falling into its central supermassive black hole. As the material swirls past the hole’s event horizon and down to the ultimate trash compactor called the singularity, it heats up and radiates tremendous amounts of energy as light and heat — a last gasp before disappearing for good.

Artist’s rendering of a distant quasar powered by a black hole. Material in the spinning disk around the hole is heated and radiates light before it falls into the hole and disappears for good. Beams of radiation (one shown here) shoot off into space on either side of the disk. ESO/M. Kornmesser

Quasars are extremely luminous objects located located at great distances from Earth. The closest is IC 2497 located in Leo Minor (the little lion) 730 million light years away, but it’s no longer active. The nearest active quasar — feeding on copious material in the heart of its home galaxy — is dubbed 3C 273 and shines 2.5 billion light years from Earth in Virgo. We see these exotic objects across tremendous distances because of the incredible energy they produce. In the universe’s early days, when there was still a lot of material in the cores of the early galaxies for quasars to feed on, they were more numerous than they are in the present time.

The Teacup is 1.1 billion light years away and was thought to be a dying quasar like IC 2497 until recent X-ray observations found otherwise. Discovered in 2007 as part of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project, astronomers took a closer look and discovered a powerful eruption of energy and particles from the central black hole. The material creates a huge bubble or “handle” about 30,000 light years from its center.

Strong radiation coming from the quasar in the distant past still reveals itself as excited or “ionized” atoms in the handle. But its current output appears to have diminished by 50 to 600 times over the past 40,000 to 100,000 years, leading astronomers to believe the quasar was in the process of fading.

Quasar 3C 273 looks exactly like a star (left) because it’s so brilliant it outshines its host galaxy. Only when a special mask is used to block its light does the galaxy come into view (right). If 3C 273 were 30 light-years from the Earth, it would shine as brightly as the Sun! NASA / A. Martel (JHU) / ACS Science Team / J. Bahcall (IAS) / ESA

New data from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory reveal that a central source — undoubtedly the quasar — is still pumping out powerful X-rays but shrouded by dust and gas. Chandra images also show evidence for hotter gas in the central bubble blowing away from the black hole, creating the teacup shape.

The left side shows the wide-field view to help you get oriented. The right is a detailed map. North is up. Click for a large version you can save and print out for use at the telescope. The star labeled 86 shines at magnitude 8.6 and is shown on both charts. Once you locate it, you can star-hop from there to the quasar. Left: Stellarium, right: chart created with MegaStar5 by Emil Bonanno, Copyright 1992-2002 by E.L.B. Software, Distributed by Willmann-Bell, Inc.

Most quasars appear very faint because of their great distance, but the brightest, 3C 273 in Virgo, is visible in an 8-inch telescope from a suburban or rural site. I saw it for the first time in my 6-inch reflector from country skies many years ago. It looks exactly like a faint star. If you’d like to have a go at it, I’ve included two maps to help you find it: a wide-field map to get you in the neighborhood and a detailed map to take you there directly. The quasar currently shines at magnitude 12.9 and at 2.5 billion light years is a thousand times more distant than the Andromeda Galaxy.

I think it’s time again for a cup of tea, the better to contemplate the many and curious things that inhabit our universe.