Excerpt from wired.com
In 2007, A Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny var Arkel discovered a weird green glob of gas in space. Sifting through pictures of galaxies online, as part of the citizen science project Galaxy Zoo, she saw a cloud, seemingly glowing, sitting next to a galaxy. Intrigued, astronomers set out to find more of these objects, dubbed Hanny’s Voorwerp (“Hanny’s object” in Dutch). Now, again with the help of citizen scientists, they’ve found 19 more of them, using the Hubble space telescope to snap the eight haunting pictures in the gallery above.
Since var Arkel found the first of these objects, hundreds more volunteers have swarmed to help identify parts of the universe in the Galaxy Zoo gallery. To find this new set, a couple hundred volunteers went through nearly 16,000 pictures online (seven people went through all of them), clicking yes/no/maybe as to whether they saw a weird green blob. Astronomers followed up on the galaxies they identified using ground-based telescopes, and confirmed 19 new galaxies surrounded by green gas.
What causes these wispy tendrils of gas to glow? Lurking at the center of each of these galaxies is a supermassive black hole, millions to billions times as massive as the sun, with gravity so strong that even light can’t escape them. As nearby gas and dust swirls into the black hole, like water circling a drain, that material heats up, producing lots of radiation—including powerful ultraviolet. Beaming out from the galaxy, that ultraviolet radiation strikes nearby clouds of gas, left over from past collisions between galaxies. And it makes the clouds glow an eerie green. “A lot of these bizarre forms we’re seeing in the images arise because these galaxies either interacted with a companion or show evidence they merged with a smaller galaxy,” says William Keel, an astronomer at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
The eight in this gallery, captured with Hubble, are especially weird. That’s because the quasar, the black-hole engine that’s supposed to be churning out the ultraviolet radiation, is dim—too dim, in fact, to be illuminating the green gas. Apparently, the once-bright quasar has faded. But because that UV light takes hundreds of thousands of years to travel, it can continue to illuminate the gas long after its light source has died away.
That glowing gas can tell astronomers a lot about the quasar that brought it to light. “What I’m so excited about is the fact that we can use them to do archaeology,” says Gabriela Canalizo, an astronomer at the University of California, Riverside, who wasn’t part of the new research. Because the streaks of gas are so vast, stretching up to tens of thousands of light years, the way they glow reveals the history of the radiation coming from the quasar. As the quasar fades, so will the gas’s glow, with the regions of gas closer to the quasar dimming first. By analyzing how the glow dwindles with distance from the quasar, astronomers can determine how fast the quasar is fading. “This was something we’ve never been able to do,” Canalizo says.
Measuring how fast the quasar fades allows astronomers to figure out exactly what’s causing it to turn off in the first place. “What makes them dim is running out of material to eat,” Canalizo says. That could happen if the quasar is generating enough radiation to blow away all the gas and dust surrounding the black hole—the same gas and dust that feeds it. Without a steady diet, the quasar is powerless to produce radiation. Only if more gas happens to make its way toward the black hole can the quasar turn on again. The glowing gas can provide details of this process, and if other mechanisms are at play.
With more powerful telescopes, astronomers will likely find many more. Hanny’s Verwoort, it turns out, may not be that weird after all.