When astronomers first started using radio telescopes in the 1950s to study the Universe, they discovered a strange phenomenon. They found objects that shone brightly in the radio spectrum, but they couldn’t see any visible object associated with them. They called them quasi-stellar radio sources, or “quasars” for short. Within a decade of their discovery, astronomers learned that these quasars were moving away at tremendous velocities. This velocity, or red-shift of their light, indicated that they were billions of light-years away; beyond the capabilities of most optical telescopes. It wasn’t until the 1960s when a quasar was finally tied to an optical object, a distant galaxy.

Here’s where Astronomers got creative. Maybe quasars weren’t really that bright, and it was our understanding of the size and expansion of the Universe that was wrong. Or maybe we were seeing the results of a civilization, who had harnessed all stars in their galaxy into some kind of energy source. Then in the 1980s, astronomers started to agree on the active galaxy theory as the source of quasars. That, in fact, several different kinds of objects: quasars, blazars and radio galaxies were all the same thing, just seen from different angles. And that some mechanism was causing galaxies to blast out jets of radiation from their cores.

Black hole at the center of Milky Way

We now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers; some billions of times the mass of the Sun. When material gets too close, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. It heats up to millions of degrees, blasting out an enormous amount of radiation. The magnetic environment around the black hole forms twin jets of material which flow out into space for millions of light-years. This is an AGN, an active galactic nucleus. Since our own Milky Way has a supermassive black hole, it’s likely that we have gone through many active stages, whenever material is falling into the black hole; our galaxy would be seen as a quasar. But other times, like now, the supermassive black hole is quiet.

Supermassive black holes aren’t always feeding. If a black hole runs out of food, the jets run out of power and shut down. Right up until something else gets too close, and the whole system starts up again. The Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, and it’s all out of food. It doesn’t have an active galactic nucleus, and so, we don’t appear as a quasar to some distant galaxy. With new powerful telescopes, astronomers have observed that some quasars have long jets of material firing out from the center of the galaxy. These are channeled by the magnetic fields created by the supermassive black hole’s rotation in the accretion disk. The most luminous quasars can exceed the radiation output of an average quasar. We may have in the past, and may again in the future. In 10 billion years or so, when the Milky way collides with Andromeda, our supermassive black hole may roar to life as a quasar, consuming all this new material.

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