Mysterious gigantic beacons from cosmic primeval times

Mysterious gigantic beacons from cosmic primeval times

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More than 50 years after their discovery, the hitherto insufficient knowledge about quasars increases only gradually, as a current case study shows

A quasar is an extremely energetic and very brightly glowing region at the center of an active galaxy that owes its existence to the dynamics and appetite of a supermassive black hole. Sometimes it seems as if quasars themselves had taken their secrets into their black hole. Although nearly 500.With more than 000 of them known, astronomers around the world are guessing about their origin and true nature. While a galaxy expert draws a negative conclusion about previous quasar research, two Chinese astronomers present a new study in the current ie of Nature that may shed more light on these dazzling cosmic beacons.

Exactly 50 years ago, when astronomers knew almost nothing about the true nature and characteristics of quasars, when in the annals of galaxy research there was no talk of quasi-stellar cosmic phenomena, two until then unknown Soviet researchers unknowingly targeted two of them. Not out of classical radio astronomical motives, but out of pure exobiological interest.

Quasar set off SETI false alarm

Nikolai Kardashev and Evgeny Sholomitsky searched the Caltech Catalog A (CTA) for remarkably powerful radio sources and found CTA-21 and CTA-102, based on the idea that high-tech supercivilizations could control and harness the energy of an entire galaxy. Shortly thereafter, from August 1964 to February 1965, they eavesdropped on the two target regions. To their amazement, after a total of 80 hours of searching, they registered a strong broadband signal with their five antennas connected to form a network. On a frequency of 920 megahertz a pulse with a very wide extension of the spectrum appeared.

mysterious gigantic beacons from cosmic primeval times

Nikolai Kardashev, who is 82 years old today. He is the origin of the Kardashev scale, which is well known in SETI circles. Image: North American AstroPhysical Observatory/Philipp Morrison

The fact that the strength of the registered signal was slowly but steadily increasing, gave the impression that it was trying to draw attention to itself. For some representatives of communist propaganda, this was reason enough to call for more police on 12. In April 1965, the news agency TASS reported that Soviet researchers had picked up interstellar signals whose origin was of an intelligent nature. Unaware of the latest American research on quasars, two days later they arranged a rude press conference at which the research duo gleefully told the astonished journalists and the world public about the supercivilizations so eager for signals.

But the joy was short-lived. As is often the case with hastily published announcements of this kind, the hastily spread sensational news was not confirmed. Already in November 1964 two US astronomers identified the radio source CTA-102 as a true quasar with a strong redshift.

Quasars Arrested

After several months of fierce American-Soviet controversy about the authenticity of the extraterrestrial artificial source, even the two Soviet astronomers said goodbye to their promising candidate.

The second SETI observation in the history of science turned into a farce. "I felt for my colleagues there and was taught a lesson I will never forget about the folly of prematurely publicizing such discoveries", wrote SETI pioneer Frank Drake in his 1992 biographical monograph "Signals from other worlds".

What seemed to be an extraterrestrial-intelligent strong signal for the Soviets in 1964, turned out to be a new cosmic phenomenon, which had been described in the USA for the first time only one year before by Maarten Schmidt, but which obviously the scientists of the political arch-enemy as a consequence of the Cold War had not taken note of yet. At that time Schmidt investigated a strong radio source. Behind 3C 273, the catalog number of the object, the researcher suspected a radiant star. But to his astonishment it soon turned out that the supposed star lay outside the Milky Way. Even his colleagues could not hide their surprise when Schmidt declared the star an active galaxy in Nature 1963, set its redshift to 0.158, and determined the object’s distance to be 2.4 billion light-years.

mysterious gigantic beacons from cosmic primeval times

Image of the nearby active galaxy NGC 1433. Image: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/ESA/F. Combes

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