Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, combined with the gravitational lensing effect of stars in a distant galaxy, an international team of astronomers measured the disk’s size and studied the colors and also the temperatures of different parts of the disk. Such disks of matter falling onto extremely large supermassive black holes are called quasars, and are some of the brightest objects in the universe. As their mass is pulled into the black hole, the disks heat up and powerful radiation is released that makes them glow incredibly bright. According to lead scientist Jose Muñoz of the University of Valencia in Spain a quasar accretion disk has a typical size of a few light-days, or around 100 billion kilometers (62 billion miles) across, but they lie billions of light-years away.
The researchers observed small changes in color across the length of the quasar disk that correspond to different temperatures, proving new levels of detail about one of nature’s most bizarre and powerful phenomena. Jose Muñoz think that this result is very relevant because it implies they are now able to otbtain observational data on the structure of these systems, rather than relying on theory alone. Quasars’ physical properties are not yet well understood. This new ability to obtain observational measurements is therefore opening a new window to help understand the nature of these objects.