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March 15, 2017

Modern amateur telescopes reveal some amazing sights, from the colorful death throes of stars that are thousands of light-years away, to spiral galaxies millions of light-years away. Perhaps the most amazing sight of all, though, looks like an average star. But it’s really a maelstrom of gas around a supermassive black hole. It’s two and a half billion light-years from Earth, which means we see it as it looked two and a half billion years ago.

3C 273 is a quasar — one of the most powerful objects in the universe. It’s powered by a black hole that’s hundreds of millions of times as massive as the Sun. The black hole’s gravity pulls in gas, dust, and stars from the galaxy around it.

This material swirls around the black hole, forming a disk that’s about as wide as our solar system. Friction heats the material to millions of degrees, so it shines brighter than an entire galaxy of stars.

Magnetic fields direct some of the superhot gas in the disk into jets that shoot into space. The jets produce enormous amounts of radio waves. One of the jets aims at Earth, so we get a powerful blast of energy from it.

Astronomers have cataloged a couple of thousand quasars. Some are even more energetic than 3C 273. But they’re also farther away, so they don’t look as bright. That leaves 3C 273 as the most-distant object visible through most amateur telescopes. Right now, it’s in the east a couple of hours after night falls, well above the bright planet Jupiter.


Script by Damond Benningfield


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