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quasar

quasar (kwāˈsär) [key], one of a class of blue celestial objects having the appearance of stars when viewed through a telescope and currently believed to be the most distant and most luminous objects in the universe; the name is shortened from quasi-stellar radio source (QSR). Quasars were discovered as the visible counterparts of certain discrete celestial sources of radio waves (see radio astronomy). Similar starlike objects that do not emit radio waves were subsequently discovered and named quasi-stellar objects (QSOs). Although their visible light is faint, the quasars are optically brighter than the galaxies with which radio sources had been identified before 1963. Before their spectra were studied carefully, it was believed that the quasars were stars in our galaxy. However, the lines in their spectra have enormous red shifts that seem to imply that they are receding from the Milky Way with speeds as great as 95% of the speed of light. Only shifts toward the red end of the spectrum have been observed for quasars; blue-shifted ones that would indicate a quasar approaching our galaxy have not yet been found. If quasars were simply objects being ejected from nearby galaxies at high speeds, and not the distant objects they appear to be, then some would have blue shifts. If Hubble's law for the expansion of the universe is extrapolated to include the quasars, they would be many billion light-years away and consequently as luminous intrinsically as 1,000 galaxies combined. To account for such brilliant light, astronomers believe that quasars are supermassive black holes in galactic nuclei, releasing energy by the accretion of matter through a rotating viscous disk (see cosmology).

See H. L. Shipman, Black Holes, Quasars, and the Universe (2d ed. 1980).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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