See H. L. Shipman, Black Holes, Quasars, and the Universe (2d ed. 1980).
Some quasars display rapid changes in luminosity in the optical and even more rapid in the X-rays, which implies that they are small (Solar System sized or less) as an object cannot change faster than the time it takes light to travel from one end to the other; but relativistic beaming of jets pointed nearly directly toward us explains the most extreme cases. The highest redshift known for a quasar (as of December 2007) is 6.43, which corresponds (assuming the currently-accepted value of 71 for the Hubble Constant) to a distance of approximately 28 billion light-years. (NB there are some subtleties in distance definitions in cosmology, so that distances greater than 13.7 billion light-years, or even greater than 27.4 = 2*13.7 light-years, can occur.)
Quasars are believed to be powered by accretion of material into supermassive black holes in the nuclei of distant galaxies, making these luminous versions of the general class of objects known as active galaxies. Large central masses (106 to 109 Solar masses) have been measured in quasars using 'reverberation mapping'. Several dozen nearby large galaxies, with no sign of a quasar nucleus, have been shown to contain a similar central black hole in their nuclei, so it is thought that all large galaxies have one, but only a small fraction emit powerful radiation and so are seen as quasars. The matter accreting onto the black hole is unlikely to fall directly in, but will have some angular momentum around the black hole that will cause the matter to collect in an accretion disc.
Knowledge of quasars is advancing rapidly. As recently as the 1980s, there was no clear consensus as to their origin.
More than 100,000 quasars are known, most from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. All observed quasar spectra have redshifts between 0.06 and 6.4. Applying Hubble's law to these redshifts, it can be shown that they are between 780 million and 28 billion light-years away. Because of the great distances to the furthest quasars and the finite velocity of light, we see them and their surrounding space as they existed in the very early universe.
Most quasars are known to be farther than three billion light-years away. Although quasars appear faint when viewed from Earth, the fact that they are visible from so far away means that quasars are the most luminous objects in the known universe. The quasar that appears brightest in the sky is 3C 273 in the constellation of Virgo. It has an average apparent magnitude of 12.8 (bright enough to be seen through a small telescope), but it has an absolute magnitude of −26.7. From a distance of about 33 light-years, this object would shine in the sky about as brightly as our sun. This quasar's luminosity is, therefore, about 2 trillion (2 × 1012) times that of our sun, or about 100 times that of the total light of average giant galaxies like our Milky Way.
The hyperluminous quasar APM 08279+5255 was, when discovered in 1998, given an absolute magnitude of −32.2, although high resolution imaging with the Hubble Space Telescope and the 10 m Keck Telescope revealed that this system is gravitationally lensed. A study of the gravitational lensing in this system suggests that it has been magnified by a factor of ~10. It is still substantially more luminous than nearby quasars such as 3C 273.
Quasars were much more common in the early universe. This discovery by Maarten Schmidt in 1967 was early strong evidence against the Steady State cosmology of Fred Hoyle, and in favor of the Big Bang cosmology. Quasars show where massive black holes are growing rapidly (via accretion). These black holes grow in step with the mass of stars in their host galaxy in a way not understood at present. One idea is that the jets, radiation and winds from quasars shut down the formation of new stars in the host galaxy, a process called 'feedback'. The jets that produce strong radio emission in some quasars at the centers of clusters of galaxies are known to have enough power to prevent the hot gas in these clusters from cooling and falling down onto the central galaxy.
Quasars are found to vary in luminosity on a variety of time scales. Some vary in brightness every few months, weeks, days, or hours. This means that quasars generate and emit their energy from a very small region, since each part of the quasar would have to be in contact with other parts on such a time scale to coordinate the luminosity variations. As such, a quasar varying on the time scale of a few weeks cannot be larger than a few light-weeks across. The emission of large amounts of power from a small region requires a power source far more efficient than the nuclear fusion which powers stars. The release of gravitational energy by matter falling towards a massive black hole is the only process known that can produce such high power continuously. (Stellar explosions - Supernovas and gamma-ray bursts - can do so, but only for a few minutes.) Black holes were considered too exotic by some astronomers in the 1960s, and they suggested that the redshifts arose from some other (unknown) process, so that the quasars were not really so distant as the Hubble law implied. This 'redshift controversy' lasted for many years. Many lines of evidence (seeing host galaxies, finding 'intervening' absorption lines, gravitational lensing) now demonstrate that the quasar redshifts are due to the Hubble expansion, and quasars are as powerful as first thought.
Quasars have all the same properties as active galaxies, but are more powerful: Their Radiation is 'nonthermal' (i.e. not due to a black body), and some (~10%) are observed to also have jets and lobes like those of radio galaxies that also carry significant (but poorly known) amounts of energy in the form of high energy (i.e. rapidly moving, close to the speed of light) particles (either electrons and protons or electrons and positrons). Quasars can be detected over the entire observable electromagnetic spectrum including radio, infrared, optical, ultraviolet, X-ray and even gamma rays. Most quasars are brightest in their rest-frame near-ultraviolet (near the 1216 angstrom (121.6 nm) Lyman-alpha emission line of hydrogen), but due to the tremendous redshifts of these sources, that peak luminosity has been observed as far to the red as 9000 angstroms (900 nm or 0.9 µm), in the near infrared. A minority of quasars show strong radio emission, which originates from jets of matter moving close to the speed of light. When looked at down the jet, these appear as a blazar and often have regions that appear to move away from the center faster than the speed of light (superluminal expansion). This is an optical trick due to the properties of special relativity.
Quasar redshifts are measured from the strong spectral lines that dominate their optical and ultraviolet spectra. These lines are brighter than the continuous spectrum, so they are called 'emission' lines. They have widths of several percent of the speed of light, and these widths are due to Doppler shifts due to the high speeds of the gas emitting the lines. Fast motions strongly indicate a large mass. Emission lines of hydrogen (mainly of the Lyman series and Balmer series), Helium, Carbon, Magnesium, Iron and Oxygen are the brightest lines. The atoms emitting these lines range from neutral to highly ionized. (I.e. many of the electrons are stripped off the ion, leaving it highly charged.) This wide range of ionization shows that the gas is highly irradiated by the quasar, not merely hot, and not by stars, which cannot produce such a wide range of ionization
Since quasars exhibit properties common to all active galaxies, the emissions from quasars can be readily compared to those of small active galaxies powered by supermassive black holes. To create a luminosity of 1040 W (the typical brightness of a quasar), a super-massive black hole would have to consume the material equivalent of 10 stars per year. The brightest known quasars devour 1000 solar masses of material every year. The largest known is estimated to consume matter equivalent to 600 Earths per hour. Quasars 'turn on' and off depending on their surroundings, and since quasars cannot continue to feed at high rates for 10 billion years, after a quasar finishes accreting the surrounding gas and dust, it becomes an ordinary galaxy.
Quasars also provide some clues as to the end of the Big Bang's reionization. The oldest quasars (redshift >~ 6) display a Gunn-Peterson trough and have absorption regions in front of them indicating that the intergalactic medium at that time was neutral gas. More recent quasars show no absorption region but rather their spectra contain a spiky area known as the Lyman-alpha forest. This indicates that the intergalactic medium has undergone reionization into plasma, and that neutral gas exists only in small clouds.
One other interesting characteristic of quasars is that they show evidence of elements heavier than helium, indicating that galaxies underwent a massive phase of star formation, creating population III stars between the time of the Big Bang and the first observed quasars. Light from these stars may have been observed in 2005 using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, although this observation remains to be confirmed.
The first quasars were discovered with radio telescopes in the late 1950s. Many were recorded as radio sources with no corresponding visible object. Using small telescopes and the Lovell Telescope as an interferometer, they were shown to have a very small angular size. Hundreds of these objects were recorded by 1960 and published in the Third Cambridge Catalogue as astronomers scanned the skies for the optical counterparts. In 1960, radio source 3C 48 was finally tied to an optical object. Astronomers detected what appeared to be a faint blue star at the location of the radio source and obtained its spectrum. Containing many unknown broad emission lines, the anomalous spectrum defied interpretation — a claim by John Bolton of a large redshift was not generally accepted.
In 1962 a breakthrough was achieved. Another radio source, 3C 273, was predicted to undergo five occultations by the moon. Measurements taken by Cyril Hazard and John Bolton during one of the occultations using the Parkes Radio Telescope allowed Maarten Schmidt to optically identify the object and obtain an optical spectrum using the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. This spectrum revealed the same strange emission lines. Schmidt realized that these were actually spectral lines of hydrogen redshifted at the rate of 15.8 percent. This discovery showed that 3C 273 was receding at a rate of 47,000 km/s. This discovery revolutionized quasar observation and allowed other astronomers to find redshifts from the emission lines from other radio sources. As predicted earlier by Bolton, 3C 48 was found to have a redshift of 37% the speed of light.
Later it was found that not all (actually only 10% or so) quasars have strong radio emission (are 'radio-loud'). Hence the name 'QSO' (quasi-stellar object) is used (in addition to 'quasar') to refer to these objects, including the 'radio-loud' and the 'radio-quiet' classes.
One great topic of debate during the 1960s was whether quasars were nearby objects or distant objects as implied by their redshift. It was suggested, for example, that the redshift of quasars was not due to the expansion of space but rather to light escaping a deep gravitational well. However a star of sufficient mass to form such a well would be unstable and in excess of the Hayashi limit. Quasars also show unusual spectral emission lines which were previously only seen in hot gaseous nebulae of low density, which would be too diffuse to both generate the observed power and fit within a deep gravitational well. There were also serious concerns regarding the idea of cosmologically distant quasars. One strong argument against them was that they implied energies that were far in excess of known energy conversion processes, including nuclear fusion. At this time, there were some suggestions that quasars were made of some hitherto unknown form of stable antimatter and that this might account for their brightness. Others speculated that quasars were a white hole end of a wormhole. However, when accretion disc energy-production mechanisms were successfully modeled in the 1970s, the argument that quasars were too luminous became moot and today the cosmological distance of quasars is accepted by almost all researchers.
In the 1980s, unified models were developed in which quasars were classified as a particular kind of active galaxy, and a general consensus emerged that in many cases it is simply the viewing angle that distinguishes them from other classes, such as blazars and radio galaxies. The huge luminosity of quasars results from the accretion discs of central supermassive black holes, which can convert on the order of 10% of the mass of an object into energy as compared to 0.7% for the p-p chain nuclear fusion process that dominates the energy production in sun-like stars.
This mechanism also explains why quasars were more common in the early universe, as this energy production ends when the supermassive black hole consumes all of the gas and dust near it. This means that it is possible that most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, have gone through an active stage (appearing as a quasar or some other class of active galaxy depending on black hole mass and accretion rate) and are now quiescent because they lack a supply of matter to feed into their central black holes to generate radiation.