Earth’s hurricanes have nothing on this quasar

Winds surrounding black hole are fastest on record

quasar winds

WILD WHIRL  Winds whipping around the black hole at the center of a quasar, such as the one illustrated here, are moving at roughly 20 percent of the speed of light, a new study reports.

M. Kornmesser/ESO

When visiting the center of a galaxy nicknamed J0230, pack a sturdy windproof jacket. There, you will encounter a galactic hurricane with winds whipping at about 200 million kilometers per hour. At that speed, nearly 20 percent of the speed of light, a trip around Earth would take just 0.7 seconds. These are the fastest known winds around a quasar, a blazing disk of detritus around a supermassive black hole, researchers report in the March 21 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They’re about 625,000 times as fast as the highest sustained winds in any hurricane seen on Earth.

These quasar winds get their speed from the intense radiation emitted by the disk, which glows as bright as roughly 22 trillion suns. The light comes from gases slamming together as they orbit a black hole with 2.2 billion times as much mass as the sun. Despite occupying a relatively tiny volume of space, the quasar can launch winds powerful enough to shape its entire home galaxy. Star-forming factories throughout the galaxy can get shut down as gases are flung into intergalactic space.

Light from the quasar, which sits in the constellation Cetus, takes about 11 billion years to reach Earth. Its winds best those of the previous record holder, a quasar designated PG 2302+029, by about 14 million kilometers per hour.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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