How do Quasars Really Work?

Quasars are the most luminous objects known in our universe, and they are found in the centers of galaxies. Some quasars are as bright as 100 or 1000 times our galaxy the Milky Way, and this enormous amount of light is coming from a region so small that it appears point-like, in the center of the host galaxy, even with the most powerful telescopes we have. Some quasars are seen to emit a powerful jet of particles, often seen in the radio or X-ray wavelengths.

An example of what a distant quasar may look like when viewed with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory is found in these images of PKS 1127-145, one of these quasars that is so bright that you can't even see the galaxy around it because it is outshined by the light of the quasar. There are some quasars that are not so luminous (they receive other fancy names such as Seyfert galaxies), and then you can see the galaxy with a bright dot in its center, like in the NGC 7742 Seyfert Galaxy, a spiral galaxy whose disk happens to be seen almost perfectly face-on.

The first quasars were discovered in 1963, and shortly after their discovery astrophysicists theorized that they were perhaps being caused by very massive black holes. Black holes are predicted by Einstein's theory of General Relativity, which is the theory that describes gravity as arising from the geometry and curvature of space-time. A black hole is a mass that has been compressed into a very small region of space, and its gravity has become so strong that not even light can escape from it. When any object falls toward a black hole, it accelerates to near the speed of light before it finally disappears into it. A black hole is the perfect garbage disposal machine: if you throw any object into a black hole, you will never see it or hear anything about it again after it has crossed the black hole horizon.

Even though we call black holes ``black'' because no light can escape from inside their event horizon, matter falling into a black hole may become extremely luminous as it speeds up to near the speed of light when reaching the region around the horizon. If several streams of matter move around the black hole in different orbits as they fall from different directions, they will collide with each other at speeds close to the speed of light. An enormous amount of energy is released in such a collision, which can then be emitted in the form of light. A black hole can convert as much as 10 or 20% of the rest-mass energy of the matter that it captures into light energy, and become extremely luminous. The efficiency of energy production of matter falling to a black hole can be much larger than the efficiency of nuclear fusion reactions that power stars like the Sun, which is less than 1%. So, that is the reason that astrophysicists thought of black holes as soon as they discovered quasars: with much less mass than a galaxy, it can produce much more light than a whole galaxy.

Here is a good website to learn the basics on Active Galaxies and Quasars.

The standard idea about quasars has been that a central black hole is surrounded by a gaseous accretion disk, and it continuously captures matter from this accretion disk to produce its luminosity. Matter in the disk is slowly dragged closer to the black hole by some viscosity processes taking place in the disk, converting its gravitational energy into heat and then radiating this heat from the disk photosphere. One problem with this idea has remained unsolved: how does the matter get to the accretion disk, and how did the black hole grow to contain such a large mass by simply accreting from this disk? To understand why this problem is severe, it is useful to think of some scales. A typical galaxy that is 100000 light years across might contain a black hole that has captured as much mass as one thousandth of all the mass of the stars in the galaxy. The galaxy might contain this much mass in stars within a region of 100 light-years from the center. The black hole itself (its event horizon where infalling matter accelerates to the speed of light) is only about 10 light-minutes across, and when the quasar is shining the accretion disk that is emitting the light is only about one light-day across. So, how did so much mass manage to get funneled into the center, from a radius of many light-years to a radius of one light-day?

One might think that the answer to this could be very simple: matter just falls to the black hole, so it gets more concentrated around it! But actually, when matter falls from a large distance, it always has some angular momentum and it moves in orbit around the center, instead of falling in directly. That is why matter in galaxies often forms disks. When the gas settles in a disk and cools by emitting radiation, it generally tends to form clumps, and these clumps keep fragmenting and collapsing until they form stars. But the gas in a disk never seems to flow in toward the center from a large distance in any galaxies. The problem is that astrophysicists have not found any good reason why this should be any different near the center of a galaxy: so we would expect that any matter in a disk that was several light-years from the center would simply have formed stars and stayed forever in orbit at a large radius, but instead it seems to have flowed in to accrete to the black hole, and in this way the black holes in galactic nuclei have grown to their enormous masses. How did this happen?

New quasar model

The new idea that I am working on is that actually, when the matter that was eventually going to collapse into the black hole reached the central region of the galaxy that was several light-years across, it was a big gas cloud which did indeed turn into stars during a big burst of star formation, instead of directly forming a gas disk to accrete to the black hole. Then, these stars managed to have their orbits become very highly eccentric, and when they passed near the center they went through a dense, small gas disk around the growing black hole. Every time the star goes through the disk, the shock slows down the star a little bit until its orbit gradually shrinks and becomes embedded inside the disk. In this way, many stars end up inside the disk and they are destroyed due to collisions with each other, with the end result being that their matter is dissolved through the disk. So, this is the way that matter is brought very close to the center, into the small accretion disk around the black hole: first the matter turns to stars, then the stars are captured by the disk, and while the quasar is active the rate of stellar captures results in an input of mass into the disk that balances the mass that accretes into the black hole from the disk. In this model, the disk is small enough that we can understand that its matter flows in toward the black hole, owing to viscosity processes; at larger radius, much of the mass is brought in by the stars being captured by the disk.

In a paper that I have published with Juna Kollmeier, who was a graduate student at Ohio State University, we proposed this model and we showed how it may explain another unsolved problem: the fact that the masses of black holes correlate very well with the velocity dispersion of the bulge or elliptical galaxy around them. This correlation was discovered around the year 2000, and you can find a good description of it in this astro-ph paper.
In our model, there is a certain number of stars that must be present around the black hole in order that the rate at which they are captured is sufficient to supply mass to the accretion disk, at the rate that is necessary to make the quasar shine. If we want to have these number of stars, their total mass implies that they must move with a certain velocity dispersion. And we found that the correlation predicted by our model for the black hole mass and galaxy velocity dispersion matches reasonably well the observed relation.

At the present time I am working at understanding better the way in which the stars can be captured by the accretion disk, and the way that the accretion disk can remain in a steady-state configuration as it gains matter from the stars and loses it into the black hole. The stars first need to have their orbits modified to become highly eccentric. This can be achieved by the process of orbital relaxation. The exact way in which stars are brought to eccentric orbits depends on the relaxation process, which could be due to massive clusters or gas clouds passing through the central region of the galaxy and perturbing the orbits of the stars in that region. The gravity of the stellar system and of the gaseous accretion disk itself also introduces small perturbations to the gravitational field of the black hole that can change the way in which orbits can be modified to become highly eccentric. This process is essential to understand how stars are captured by the disk and whether the whole model can work.

A problem that this model is facing, which does not at this point have a clear solution, is related to the angular momentum of the stars that are captured by the disk. The stars that are captured by the accretion disk may tend to have a net specific angular momentum that is opposite to that of the disk. The reason is that the stars that move along their orbit in the opposite sense of rotation than the disk can be more easily captured, because the relative velocity of the collision with the gas disk will be faster (and so the stars can slow down more rapidly). If this is indeed true, then the stars would remove the angular momentum of the disk as they are captured, and the matter in the disk would have to rapidly accrete into the black hole. A steady-state solution where the disk is maintained as it captures more stars and accretes matter to the black hole could not exist. I am investigating this problem to see if it is actually true that captured stars have an average specific angular momentum opposite to the disk. The problem is actually highly complex because the stellar system around the accretion disk would normally have a small degree of rotation, which could constantly give an average angular momentum to the stars on nearly radial orbits that are undergoing the capture process. in order to rotate around the black hole.

My other research related to quasars

With Francesco Shankar and David Weinberg, at Ohio State University, I have investigated the evolution of quasars and black holes from the present observations available. Our results indicate that the observed population of quasars and nuclear black holes is consistent with the idea that the black holes grew by accretion of matter which radiated at high radiative efficiency as quasars, with a roughly constant value of the ratio of the luminosity to the Eddington luminosity, and the radiative efficiency. Other highlights of this work, done also in collaboration with Martin Crocce and Pablo Fosalba (from ICE at Barcelona), is that in order to reproduce the quasar clustering and the evolution of quasars up to redshift z=6, with the distribution of collapsed halos predicted in the Cold Dark Matter model, one must assume that nearly all black holes were active at z=6 and that a much larger fraction of the baryons in the halo accreted to the black hole compared to the fraction in present-day galaxies.

With Jaiyul Yoo, a former student at Ohio State, and other collaborators, we have examined the rate at which black holes can merge and the degree to which their mass growth is affected by mergers, using an analytic method we have developed to follow the dynamical evolution of halos once they merge into larger halos. Assuming black holes are located at halo centers and they merge whenever their parent halos spiral in all the way to the center in a merger, we have found that mergers can impact the abundance of the most massive halos, increasing the maximum masses of black holes by a factor of 2 or 3, but the growth of the majority of lower mass black holes is not affected very much.

Another research effort has been directed at discovering the most massive black holes in the universe with the STIS spectrograph on board the Hubble Space Telescope. After obtaining observing time with Laura Ferrarese, student Elena Dalla Bontà and other collaborators completed the work on reducing and interpreting the data. Two new black holes in massive elliptical galaxies in clusters were found which are among the few most massive black holes known at present.

My recent publications related to this research:

  1. J. Miralda-Escudé and Juna Kollmeier 2005, ``Star Captures by Accretion Disks: A Possible Explanation of the M-sigma Relation'', Ap. J., 619, 30. You can also find the astro-ph preprint.
  2. J. Yoo, J. Miralda-Escudé, D. H. Weinberg, Z. Zheng, and C. W. Morgan 2007, ``The Most Massive Black Holes in the Universe: Effects of Merging in Massive Galaxy Clusters'', Ap. J., 684, 18. You can also find the astro-ph preprint.
  3. F. Shankar, D. Weinberg, J. Miralda-Escudé 2009, ``Self-Consistent Models of the AGN and Black Hole Populations: Duty Cycles, Accretion Rates and the Mean Radiative Efficiency'', Ap. J., 690, 20. You can also find the astro-ph preprint.
  4. F. Shankar, M. Crocce, J. Miralda-Escudé, P. Fosalba, D. Weinberg 2009, ``On the Radiative Efficiencies, Eddington Ratios, and Duty Cycles of Luminous High-Redshift Quasars'', submitted to Ap. J. You can find the astro-ph preprint.
  5. E. Dalla Bontà, L. Ferrarese, E. M. Corsini, J. Miralda-Escudé, L. Coccato, M. Sarzi, A. Pizzella, and A. Beifiori 2009, ``The High-Mass End of the Black Hole Mass Function: Mass Estimates in Brightest Cluster Galaxies'', Ap. J., 690, 537 You can find the astro-ph preprint.