A Mighty Wind Blows ... in Space


Astrophysicists measured quasar winds traveling at about 20 percent the speed of light. NASA and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)
Astrophysicists measured quasar winds traveling at about 20 percent the speed of light. NASA and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)

Astrophysicists recently revealed that they had measured massively powerful winds deep in space. "But wait," we hear you cry, "I thought that there was no air out in space! How could there possibly be wind?" This wind is made up of particles of matter propelled by ultraviolet radiation.

The source? A quasar surrounding a supermassive black hole. Quasars, also known as quasi-stellar objects, are discs of material that accumulate around the edge of a black hole millions or even billions of times more massive than the sun. This accretion disc becomes incredibly hot, on the order of millions of degrees.

As long as it can feed upon matter, the black hole creates a magnetic environment that in turn forces this material to jet out into space in two columns. Depending upon our viewing angle of these jets, we call them radio galaxies (with jets perpendicular to our view), blazars (staring down the barrel of a jet) or quasars (the jets appear to us at some other angle).

Oh, and if the black hole gobbles up all the available matter close by, the jets stop. That's why right now our home galaxy of the Milky Way doesn't have a quasar at the center — there's no matter close enough to the galaxy's central black hole for it to feed. But if matter gets close enough to the black hole, the jets will fire up.

The enormous amount of energy from the quasar pushes matter off into space at incredible speeds. Ultraviolet radiation travels at the speed of light. The matter that makes up the "wind" can't go that fast, but the astrophysicists detected material traveling at more than 200 million kilometers per hour, or 124 million miles per hour. That's about 20 percent the speed of light. Not too shabby for something with mass.

These winds end up shaping galaxies. According to astrophysicists, the winds interfere with star formation. If they didn't exist, we'd have many more stars in large galaxies. Thankfully, we don't experience winds nearly as powerful here on Earth — the wind speed is about on par with a category 77 hurricane. There's probably no storm cellar on the planet sufficient to withstand that kind of blast.



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