A blazar is an active galactic nucleus (AGN) with a relativistic jet (a jet composed of ionized matter traveling at nearly the speed of light) directed very nearly towards an observer. Relativistic beaming of electromagnetic radiation from the jet makes blazars appear much brighter than they would be if the jet were pointed in a direction away from Earth. Blazars are powerful sources of emission across the electromagnetic spectrum and are observed to be sources of high-energy gamma ray photons.
Blazars, like all active galactic nuclei (AGN), are thought to be ultimately powered by material falling onto a supermassive black hole at the center of the host galaxy. Gas, dust and the occasional star are captured and spiral into this central black hole, creating a hot accretion disk which generates enormous amounts of energy in the form of photons, electrons, positrons and other elementary particles. This region is relatively small, approximately 10−3 parsecs in size.
Blazars are highly variable sources, often undergoing rapid and dramatic fluctuations in brightness on short timescales (hours to days). Some blazar jets exhibit apparent superluminal motion, another consequence of material in the jet traveling toward the observer at nearly the speed of light.
The generally accepted theory is that BL Lac objects are intrinsically low-power radio galaxies while OVV quasars are intrinsically powerful radio-loud quasars. The name “blazar” was coined in 1978 by astronomer Edward Spiegel to denote the combination of these two classes.
Blazar research includes investigation of the properties of accretion disks and jets, the central supermassive black holes and surrounding host galaxies, and the emission of high-energy photons, cosmic rays, and neutrinos.
The observed emission from a blazar is greatly enhanced by relativistic effects in the jet, a process called relativistic beaming. The bulk speed of the plasma that constitutes the jet can be in the range of 95%–99% of the speed of light, although individual particles move at higher speeds in various directions.
The relationship between the luminosity emitted in the rest frame of the jet and the luminosity observed from Earth depends on the characteristics of the jet. These include whether the luminosity arises from a shock front or a series of brighter blobs in the jet, as well as details of the magnetic fields within the jet and their interaction with the moving particles.
Consider a jet with an angle to the line of sight θ = 5° and a speed of 99.9% of the speed of light. The luminosity observed from Earth is 70 times greater than the emitted luminosity. However, if θ is at the minimum value of 0° the jet will appear 600 times brighter from Earth.
Relativistic beaming also has another critical consequence. The jet which is not approaching Earth will appear dimmer because of the same relativistic effects. Therefore, two intrinsically identical jets will appear significantly asymmetric. In the example given above any jet where θ > 35° will be observed on Earth as less luminous than it would be from the rest frame of the jet.
In July 2018, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory team traced a neutrino that hit its Antarctica-based detector in September 2017 to its point of origin in a blazar 3.7 billion light-years away. This was the first time that a neutrino detector was used to locate an object in space.