ScienceShot: A Pint-Sized Quasar

In May 2009, astronomers were watching M82, a galaxy about 10-million light-years away known for its ability to churn out new stars at a very rapid clip. Suddenly they spied an intensely bright light, which they thought at first was a new supernova, the explosive death of a giant star. But unlike a supernova, the light didn't dim. Even now, nearly a year later, the light shines just as brilliantly. What could it be? Tomorrow at a meeting of the Royal Astronomy Society in Glasgow, United Kingdom, a team proposes that the new phenomenon is something they're calling a micro-quasar, a pint-sized version of the brightest light in the universe. Quasars are caused by the close encounter of two supermassive black holes, each with billions of solar masses and crammed into tight quarters at the center of a galaxy. But because the phenomenon in M82 is much smaller, astronomers think its source objects must be more garden-variety black holes with masses on the order of dozens of suns.