Scientists astonished after spotting 4 quasars in deep space in impossibly rare event

Quasars are rare enough -- one scientist estimates the odds of finding four in one star system to be 10 million to one -- and it's changing how scientists think about these mysterious cosmic events.
By Adam Widmer | May 16, 2015
Astronomers were peering into a huge nebula that dates back to the very beginnings of the early universe -- and they were absolutely floored by what they saw.

Four quasars, extremely rare events where black holes blast out a huge amount of matter in what has been described as one of the brightest phenomenons in the universe, have been found in just one star system -- and that's never been seen before.

Typically, quasars are about 100 million light-years apart, but these four quasars were within 700,000 light-years of each other.Although quasars certainly have been found many times before -- a total of 500,000 of them have been identified so far -- only about a hundred systems with two quasars have been discovered, which amounts to 1/50th of 1 percent of all quasars. What about triple-quasar systems? They've only been recorded twice. And certainly, never have scientists spotted a four-quasar event until now.

According to a report, that's exactly what scientists in at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany found, led by Joseph Hennawi, using the Keck telescope in Hawaii to track 29 quasars in order to spot a nebula of cool hydrogen gas. Scientists look to quasars to help illuminate this gas since they are so incredibly bright, and in the process discovered the four-quasar system that amazed all of them.

A quasar has a luminosity that outshines our own Milky Way galaxy by 100 times -- the entire galaxy. It happens when mass gets sucked into a supermassive black hole's accretion disc, and the black hole in turn blasts out a vast amount of energy across the universe before swallowing up that matter.

Hennawi it was such a shocking find to see four quasars so close together that he would place the likelihood at 1 in 10 million odds, the report states.

Quasars are short-lived, which is what makes them so far. They can last 10 and 100 million years, which may sound like a lot but is just a short period in the life of a galaxy, which lasts about 10 billion years typically, making it so difficult to spot them, especially in such close proximity.

Hennawi's team spotted the brightest Lyman-alpha nebulae ever discovered, and the four quasars were lurking in that cloud of gas.

His team'sfindings were published in the journal Science.


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