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Scientists make public largest map of the universe’s active supermassive black holes (SMBHs) ever created

A gigantic new 3D map of space includes more than 1 million SMBH powered quasars, which are amongst the brightest objects in the universe. Scientists have uncovered a moving 3D map of SMBHs that covers the largest volume of our cosmos ever charted. The map is made up of 1.3 million quasars (cores of active galaxies powered by SMBHs and some of the brightest cosmic objects existing).

The light released by quasars comes from the SMBH’s gravitational pull on nearby clouds of gas, according to a statement of the Simons Foundation in New York, which finances and supports research in science and maths. As friction heats up these gas clouds, they can fashion a bright, fast-moving disk that sometimes sprouts powerful jets of light. The new map, named Quaia, is a collection (catalog) of quasars based on data collected by ESA’s Gaia space telescope, amongst other sources. It appears in a fresh study published Monday (18th March) in The Astrophysical Journal.

“This quasar catalog is different from all previous catalogs in that it gives us a three-dimensional map of the largest-ever volume of the universe,” said the map co-creator David Hogg (an astrophysicist at New York University and senior research scientist at the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute). “It isn’t the catalog with the most quasars, and it isn’t the catalog with the best-quality measurements of quasars, but it is the catalog with the largest total volume of the universe mapped,” Hogg added.

Researchers can learn quite a bit from quasars. Their evolution is knotted with that of their host galaxies, so studying them gives researchers insight into the mysteries of how SMBHs grow and how gigantic galaxies form, according to the study.

Galaxies with quasars are also surrounded by dark matter (an invisible substance that is believed to comprise 85% of the universe’s total matter). This provides researchers with a great opportunity to learn more about enigmatic dark matter, including how it clumps together, according to the statement. The standard model of cosmology proposes that these clumps impacts the distribution of regular matter across the universe.

To chart their map, the research team combined data from Gaia’s third data release of June 2022, which flagged over 6 million quasar candidates, with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer. ESA’s Gaia space telescope has been mapping the Milky Way since its 2013 launch. Although its mission is focused on our galaxy, the telescope additionally records objects outside of the Milky Way, including quasars, according to the statement.

“We were able to make measurements of how matter clusters together in the early universe that are as precise as some of those from major international survey projects — which is quite remarkable given that we got our data as a ‘bonus’ from the Milky Way-focused Gaia project,” stated lead author Kate Storey-Fisher (a postdoctoral researcher at the Donostia International Physics Center, a Spanish research institution).

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