Hubble unexpectedly finds double quasar in distant Universe

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a pair of quasars (known as J0749+2255) that existed when the Universe was just 3 billion years old. They are embedded inside a pair of colliding galaxies. The quasars are separated by less than the size of a single galaxy. Quasars are powered by voracious, supermassive black holes blasting out ferocious fountains of energy as they engorge themselves on gas, dust, and anything else within their gravitational grasp. The black holes will eventually merge.

This discovery required the combined power of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatories in Hawaii. Multi-wavelength observations from the International Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, NSF's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory also contributed to understanding the dynamic duo. And, ESA's Gaia space observatory helped identify this double quasar in the first place. 

Hubble shows, unequivocally, that this is indeed a genuine pair of supermassive black holes, rather than two images of the same quasar created by a foreground gravitational lens. And, Hubble shows a tidal feature from the merging of two galaxies, where gravity distorts the shape of the galaxies forming two tails of stars.

However, Hubble's sharp resolution alone isn't good enough to go looking for these dual light beacons. Researchers enlisted Gaia, which launched in 2013, to pinpoint potential double-quasar candidates. Gaia measures the positions, distances, and motions of nearby celestial objects very precisely. But in a novel technique, it can be used to explore the distant universe. Gaia's huge database can be used to search for quasars that mimic the apparent motion of nearby stars. The quasars appear as single objects in the Gaia data because they are so close together. However, Gaia can pick up a subtle, unexpected "jiggle" that mimics an apparent change in position of some of the quasars it observes. In reality, the quasars aren't moving through space in any measurable way. Instead, their jiggle could be evidence of random fluctuations of light as each member of the quasar pair varies in brightness on timescales of days to months, depending on their black hole's feeding schedule. This alternating brightness between the quasar pair is similar to seeing a railroad crossing signal from a distance. As the lights on both sides of the stationary signal alternately flash, the sign gives the illusion of "jiggling."

Because Hubble peers into the distant past, this double quasar no longer exists. Over the intervening 10 billion years, their host galaxies have likely settled into a giant elliptical galaxy, like the ones seen in the local universe today. And, the quasars have merged to become a gargantuan, supermassive black hole at its centre. The nearby giant elliptical galaxy, M87, has a monstrous black hole weighing 6.5 billion times the mass of our Sun. Perhaps this black hole was grown from one or more galaxy mergers over the past billions of years.

These results are featured in the paper published on 5 April 2023 in the journal Nature.

[Image description: A close-up image of a dual quasar system is shown. They appear as two large, white blurry circles in the centre of the image.]


NASA, ESA, Yu-Ching Chen (UIUC), Hsiang-Chih Hwang (IAS), Nadia Zakamska (JHU), Yue Shen (UIUC)

About the Image

NASA press release
Release date:5 April 2023, 17:00
Size:920 x 920 px

About the Object

Distance:z=2.17 (redshift)
Category:Quasars and Black Holes

Image Formats

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Position (RA):7 49 22.96
Position (Dec):22° 55' 12.06"
Field of view:0.05 x 0.05 arcminutes
Orientation:North is 0.9° right of vertical

Colours & filters

475 nm Hubble Space Telescope
814 nm Hubble Space Telescope

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