Just for the Health of It

A New Quasar Sets The Universe On Fire

Light breaks where no sun shines;

Where no sea runs–“Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines”, Dylan Thomas

Quasars are exceptionally brilliant objects that are usually observed dwelling in the very remote and ancient Universe. These very distant celestial bodies are believed to have first ignited a “mere” few hundred million years after the Big Bang birth of the Universe almost 14 billion years ago. Quasars shine with a ferocious, dazzling fire; they are the accretion disks surrounding very hungry, young, and greedy supermassive black holes haunting the centers of baby galaxies forming in the ancient Universe. Supermassive black holes lurk at the centers of almost all–if not all–galaxies, and they weigh millions to billions of times more than the Sun. The Milky Way holds a supermassive black hole in its heart. It is called Sagittarius A* (Sag A*, for short), and it is a relative light-weight by supermassive black hole standards, weighing “only” millions as opposed to billions of times more than our Sun. In January 2013, astronomers in Australia announced that they believe they may have spotted a quasar in the act of catching fire for the very first time. No other quasar has ever been observed by astronomers at such an early stage of development.


At the instant of our Universe’s birth almost 14 billion years ago there was a ferocious burst of glaring light. Photons (particles of light) of extremely high-energy electromagnetic radiation were blasted out by intensely hot matter composing the ancient Cosmos. In the ancient Universe, however, light was not able to travel freely. This is because, at the extremely hot temperatures of the ancient Universe, matter was ionized. Therefore, any atoms that managed to be born were quickly ripped apart in their infancy, because the positively charged atomic nuclei could not hold on to their surrounding clouds of negatively charged electrons. Electrically charged particles are perpetual absorbers and emitters of photons. For the first 400,000 years or so of our Universe’s “life”, light was being constantly emitted, then absorbed, then emitted, and then absorbed again, in a cycle that went on far long than human civilization has on our planet. This heavenly confusion continued for hundreds of thousands of years–until the temperature of the Universe at long last plummeted to less than five thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

The Universe that we see today is expanding, transparent, and cooling off. For the first several hundred thousand years of its existence, it was made up of an opaque, impermeable fog of matter suffused by a soup of light. At that time, the Universe glowed with an intense fire that was far brighter than that of a star, like our own Sun. The epoch at which atoms could at long last form about 400,000 years after the Bang, is termed the era of recombination. It is also alternatively called the decoupling, because matter and light (photons), until that time married in a cycle of emission and re-absorption, finally were able to separate and freely go their separate ways. The dancing light was liberated. It’s been shining its way through Space and Time ever since.

Just prior to the decoupling of matter and light, the entire Universe appeared very similar to the surface of a star. It was searing-hot, opaque, and emitted a dazzling golden light. The very ancient Universe, composed of an incandescent golden fog, was very small compared to what we are used to today. The galaxies, as we now know them, formed after the decoupling.

No stars set fire to the Cosmos during this ancient time because none had, as yet, been born. No galaxies were swirling around like gigantic luminous whirlpools in Space to brighten up a very dismal, dark Cosmic environment. This epoch is called the Cosmic Dark Ages, and it began a “mere” few hundred thousand years after the Bang. The radiation that was left over as a relic from the Big Bang had dimmed, and atomic nuclei had triumphantly combined to form neutral hydrogen. Neutral hydrogen atoms absorb radiation. The weird Cosmic Dark Ages lasted for about half a billion years, and this very ancient and remote era remains cloaked in mystery. At the beginning of this long-ago era, the very first atoms of hydrogen were born. By the end of this era, the first light-blasting objects had begun to send their furious, burning light through Space to shatter the oppressive darkness. All was not peaceful during those mysterious, bewitching years. Matter was smoothly distributed throughout Space when it first formed–but by the end of the Dark Ages, it had somehow clumped together to form extremely massive large-scale structures.

Within the clumps of matter with higher-than-average densities, some pockets formed clouds of gas that began to bud off and collapse. Those collapsing primordial dust clouds were the cradles of the very first stars. The first stars flamed through the dark Universe, and illuminated it. Like the sparkling golden rays of the Sun on a quiet dawn on Earth, light streaked and shattered the darkness. The wonderful, dazzling light from these newborn incandescent stars made the opaque gas of the ancient Universe grow transparent. The conversion from a foggy, opaque darkness to a transparent star-splattered Universe took hundreds of millions of years. But, at last, the earliest stars that dwelled within the most ancient galaxies, burned their way through the cosmic fog, by way of the process of ionization. During this transition, opaque, foggy regions of the Universe were interspersed with pockets of light and newly transparent, ionized gas.

Churning Vortices

Quasars (quasi-stellar objects) are very young, extremely energetic, and brilliantly luminous active galactic nuclei (AGN). They are brilliant objects that started to wildly flame when our Universe was very young. Quasars ferociously ignited very long ago, and these ancient objects are dazzling–fiercely powered by gas and star-stuff that is violently swirling around and then fatally plummeting into the waiting, greedy jaws of hungry supermassive black holes, that hide in sinister secret, within the centers of ancient galaxies.

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