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The Discovery Of Quasars

In 1932, American engineer Karl Janskey (1905–1945) discovered existence of radio waves emanating from beyond the solar system. By the mid-1950s, an increasing number of astronomers using radio telescopes sought explanations for mysterious radio emissions from optically dim stellar sources.

In 1962, British radio astronomer Cyril Hazard used the moon as an occultive shield to discover strong radio emissions traceable to the constellation Virgo. Optical telescopes pinpointed a faint star-like object (subsequently designated quasar 3C273—3rd Cambridge Catalog, 273rd radio source) as the source of the emissions. Of greater interest was an unusual emission spectrum found associated with 3C273. Allan Sandage first reported several faint starlike objects as optical counterparts to radio sources in 1960. In 1963, American astronomer Marten Schmidt explained the abnormal spectrum from 3C273 as evidence of a highly redshifted spectrum. Red-shift describes the Doppler-like shift of spectral emission lines toward longer (hence, redder) wavelengths in objects moving away from an observer. Observers measure the light coming from objects moving away from them as redshifted (i.e., at longer wavelengths and at a lower frequency when the light was emitted). Conversely, observers measure the light coming from objects moving toward them as blueshifted (i.e., at shorter wavelengths and at a higher frequency when the light was emitted). Most importantly, the determination of the amount of an object's redshift allows the calculation of a recession velocity. Moreover, because the recession rate increases with distance, the recession velocity is a function (known as the Hubble relation) of the distance to the receding object. After 3C273, many other quasars were discovered with similarly redshifted spectra.

Schmidt's calculation of the redshift of the 3C273 spectrum meant that 3C273 was approximately three billion light-years away from Earth. It became immediately apparent that, if 3C273 was so distant, it had to be many thousands of times more luminous than a normal galaxy for the light to appear as bright as it did from such a great distance. Refined calculations involving the luminosity of 3C273 indicate that, although dim to optical astronomers, the quasar is actually five trillion times as bright as the Sun. The high redshift of 3C273 also implied a great velocity of recession measuring one-tenth the speed of light.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningQuasar - The Discovery Of Quasars, Modern Observation And Interpretation Of Quasars