Skip to main content

Quasar -- galactic beauty, deadly beast -- discovered 50 years ago

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
March 16, 2013 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
Some of the most breathtaking images in the night sky come from quasars. This artist's rendering displays the quasar's luminance, which is brighter than a billion suns. The beam is matter being shot into space. Some of the most breathtaking images in the night sky come from quasars. This artist's rendering displays the quasar's luminance, which is brighter than a billion suns. The beam is matter being shot into space.
Quasars light up the sky
Quasars light up the sky
Quasars light up the sky
Quasars light up the sky
Finding quasars
Finding quasars
Finding quasars
  • Large quasars can eat a hole in a galaxy
  • They send out bursts of deadly radiation
  • A quasar's beauty comes from energy released when a black hole crushes matter around it
  • Our solar system would quickly be destroyed by one

(CNN) -- Breathtaking blossoms nearly the size of our solar system are strewn across the universe -- hundreds of thousands of them. Quasars are, at the same time, among the most fiery monsters.

Astronomer Maarten Schmidt was the first to discover one and revealed it to the world 50 years ago Saturday in an article in the journal Nature.

His discovery was a sensation in the 1960s and made its way into pop culture. It was the age of the first manned space flights.

"It reverberated," Schmidt recalls. "It drew a lot of attention."

In the popular TV series Star Trek, the original crew of the Starship Enterprise was tasked with inspecting the newly discovered phenomenon close up.

Electronics company Motorola branded a line of televisions Quasar. A decade later Marvel Comics created a superhero with the same name.

Deadly behemoth

Luckily, no quasar is anywhere close to Earth, said Schmidt, who made the discovery at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Scientists more certain that particle is Higgs boson

If so, "we would all be dead." It would cook the Earth's surface with massive bursts of radiation called gamma rays, he said.

Then, if it were close enough, the quasar would devour our planet, our sun, the whole solar system, in a matter of months, Schmidt said.

The largest ones can eat a hole out of the center of a galaxy. Then their vast gravitational pull makes the rest of the galaxy orbit around it.

Read more science stories on CNN's Light Years Blog

'Supermassive' black hole

Quasars have at their core a "supermassive" black hole, which contains as much matter as a billion suns. A typical black hole contains as much as about 10 suns.

The "supermassive" black hole sucks in and crushes any material that comes near it -- whole stars and planets, Schmidt said.

In the process, the material glows infinitely hot and forms a very bright, colorful disc.

That disc, called an accretion disc, often covers an area almost the size of our solar system.

Studying Earth's radiation belts

It's what gives a quasar its luminous beauty. "That disc then is brighter than ... a whole galaxy," Schmidt said.

Quasars also shoot off beams called "jets" reminiscent of phaser fire coming from the Starship Enterprise. Jets are made up of subatomic particles racing away from the quasar nearly at the speed of light.

We don't want our planet to get shot by one.

"I think that would be indeed destructive," Schmidt said.

For decades, astronomers mistook quasars for stars in our own galaxy, but Schmidt took measurements that showed that they are infinitely distant -- billions of light years away.

To still be visible to a telescope on Earth, he figured out that they had to be infinitely bright as well. "It looked like a star, yet it was more luminous than a whole galaxy."

A lifetime of star gazing

Schmidt has been hooked on star gazing since childhood.

"I was a school boy in Holland, and during World War II," he said. There were constant blackouts, leaving cities pitch black at night. The stars shown more brightly than ever before.

His uncle had a telescope and showed Schmidt heavenly bodies close up.

"Soon I built myself a small telescope and it sort of took off from there," Schmidt said.

And at 84, he still gazes out many billions of light years into the universe to find new quasars.

Their vast distance from us is what makes them particularly interesting.

Stargazers capture images of comet

Because they are so far away, by the time their images traverse the universe at the speed of light and arrive here for Schmidt to see them, more time has passed than the Earth and the sun are old.

Often, he is looking at something that happened 10 billion years ago -- in a universe that scientists believe to be 13 billion years old. The quasars provide him a view on the history of the universe.

So much time has passed, that the quasars no longer even exist anymore. In fact, they've been dying out handily, he said.

"10 billion years ago there were 100 times as many quasars in the universe as there are now," Schmidt said. It shows how massively the universe has evolved.

After all this time, Schmidt still has a child's fascination for the heavens.

"I certainly enjoy going to the desert and just seeing the sky from a dark location," he said. "It is a joy to me."

He leaves the telescope at home and stares into the endless night sky with the naked eye.

And still, he often sees something he's never noticed before.

Part of complete coverage on
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
An uncrewed test flight will send Orion 3,600 miles above Earth, farther into space than any craft designed for astronauts has gone since the last Apollo moon mission more than 40 years ago.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
The University of Colorado Boulder has announced a discovery 7,200 miles above Earth of a protective shield similar to the force fields you might see in "Star Trek."
November 28, 2014 -- Updated 0058 GMT (0858 HKT)
The International Space Station's 3-D printer will create objects that can be used by those living in the station.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
Shrimp crawling around rock chimneys spewing hot water deep in the Caribbean Sea may hold clues to the kinds of life that can thrive in extreme environments on other planets, NASA says.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
It's hard to top the tricky, first-ever landing on a comet but we'll try. Here are 11 other space missions to know about.
November 7, 2014 -- Updated 2321 GMT (0721 HKT)
Add another entry to the growing list of crazy footage captured by GoPro cameras.
November 1, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
It is in our DNA to explore the unknown. But pushing boundaries and exploring space is far from easy.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
If there's one thing we've learned about the CNN iReport community, it's that you all love to capture celestial events.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 0025 GMT (0825 HKT)
Want to ride an elevator into space? A breakthrough in nanotechnology could mean we will be riding into space on a cable made of diamonds.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Astronauts lie motionless in a row of compartments with medical monitoring cables connected to their bodies, as their space ship cuts through the silent blackness.
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1929 GMT (0329 HKT)
This image from the Hubble Space Telescope indicates that a huge ring of dark matter likely exists surrounding the center of CL0024+17 that has no normal matter counterpart.
Scientists are closer to seeing a vast, invisible universe as a spectrometer in Earth orbit picks up possible clues of dark matter.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
The Soviets sent stray dogs up to conquer space. This is what happened next
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0920 GMT (1720 HKT)
Scientists believe that a hot gas bubble was formed by multiple supernovas.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Robonaut is the next generation dexterous robot
Life aboard the International Space Station.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
NASA's New Horizons mission hurtles toward Pluto in historic 3 billion mile expedition.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe -- as well as another planet like our own -- are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
If you think you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
When I first poked my head inside Virgin Galactic's newest spaceship, I felt a little like I was getting a front-row seat to space history.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.