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Friday, April 14, 2000



Universe’s most
distant object seen

Scientists at the Keck
telescope detect a quasar
formed soon after 'Big Bang'

By Helen Altonn
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

The most distant object in the universe has been detected by astronomers with the 10-meter Keck telescope atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

It's a quasar believed to have been among the first objects formed after the birth of the universe with the "Big Bang" 10 to 20 billion years ago, scientists said.

Appearing as bright, distant star-like objects, quasars are believed to represent early stages of galaxy formation. Scientists think they are fueled by a central black hole gobbling up stars and releasing enormous amounts of energy.

Astronomy professor Marc Davis, of the University of California, led the team that discovered the quasar from light emitted about a billion years after the "Big Bang."

"It's astounding," he said. "This is very close to the limit we should be able to see in the universe. Our first question is, "How does a thing like this get built and form a black hole at the center in such a short time?'

"Based on our current understanding of how the universe evolved, bright quasars like this shouldn't exist at such a distance, or they should be very rare," Davis said.

Andrew Perala, spokesman for the Keck I and II telescopes -- largest in the world for optical and infrared observations, said, "Black holes really are a mystical mystery about the universe because so little is known about their nature beyond the point of no return."

He called them "the Ebola virus of a galaxy. They kill off everything in the neighborhood, then go quiet."

Quasar SDSS 1044-0125, as it was named, was identified last week by Davis' team from data collected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Nine institutions in the United States, Japan and Germany are conducting the project, expected to survey one-fourth of the sky and 200 million objects.

The scientists thus far have found thousands of quasars, including two others that broke the distance record.

The data shows a "sort of bell curve" in the quasar population, Perala said. "There seems to be a phase during the evolution of galaxies in the universe when there were a lot more of them."

The number of quasars rose from a billion years after the "Big Bang" to a peak about 2.5 billion years later, then fell off sharply at lower redshifts -- meaning later times, the scientists reported.

Quasars shine so brightly that they're called "lighthouses of the universe," Perala said.

"We can actually use them to study primordial clouds of dust and gas that could eventually coalesce to form a new star cluster or new galaxy.

"It actually gives us a means of shining a flashlight from there to here," Perala added.



W.M. Keck Observatory



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