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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - Active galactic nuclei and the early history of galaxies


We begin this chapter by discussing galaxies with an active nucleus, a compact central region from which we observe substantial radiation that is not the light of stars or emission from the gas heated by them. Active nuclei emit strongly over the whole electromagnetic spectrum, including the radio, X-ray, and γ-ray regions where most galaxies hardly radiate at all. The most powerful of them, the quasars, easily outshine their host galaxies. With luminosities exceeding 1012 L , many are bright enough to be seen most of the way across the observable Universe. But the emitting region may be no bigger than the solar system; its power source is probably the energy released by gas falling into a central black hole. Very luminous active nuclei, such as the quasars, were far more common when the Universe was 20%–40% of its present age than they are today; nuclear activity seems to be characteristic of a galaxy's early life.

In many bright quasars, narrow twin jets are seen to emerge from the nucleus; they are probably launched and kept narrow by strong magnetic fields that build up in the surrounding disk of inflowing matter. In some cases, the jets appear to move outward faster than the speed of light. This is an illusion: the motion is slower than, but close to, light speed.

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