Astrophysicist Paola Rodriguez Hidalgo, professor of astronomy and physics at Humboldt State, studies the inner regions of distant galaxies, called quasars.

Together with a team of Canadian researchers who share her fascination with the extreme ultraviolet winds found near super-massive black holes, she recently discovered the fastest quasar winds in the ultraviolet range—the equivalent of a Category 77 hurricane—near a super-massive black hole more than 10 billion light-years away.

The discovery represents another piece of a galactic puzzle, and also opens hands-on learning opportunities for Rodriguez Hidalgo’s students at Humboldt State.

“Quasar outflows, and those at extreme speeds, have always fascinated me,” Rodriguez Hidalgo says. “Quasars might be a phase that some, if not all, massive galaxies go through, like adolescence. And we know quasars are there, but we are not sure how they interact with the galaxies around them. That’s why these extreme winds are so interesting.”

Astronomers have known about the existence of quasar winds since the late 1960s. At least one in four quasars have them. Quasars are the disks of hot gas that form around supermassive black holes at the center of massive galaxies. Quasars generate so much light and heat that they (unlike the hundreds of billions of stars in galaxies that surround quasars) can be seen across the observable universe.

Much of this research is aimed at better understanding outflows from quasars and why they happen.

“We suspect that quasars and their host galaxies form and evolve together, and these winds might be the key connecting them,” says Rodriguez Hidalgo. “From what we know, as big galaxies form, they should be making far more stars than what we actually observe. So something—maybe these winds—stops galaxies from producing too many stars.”

Through a $23,000 award from NASA and observing time with the Chandra satellite and Gemini North telescope, Rodriguez Hidalgo and her students will use the data to study how X-ray and UV quasar winds might be related.