The first quasars discovered looked like stars but had strong radio emission. Their visible-light spectra at first seemed confusing, but then astronomers realized that they had much larger redshifts than stars. The quasar spectra obtained so far show redshifts ranging from 15% to more than 96% the speed of light. Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope show that quasars lie at the centers of galaxies and that both spirals and ellipticals can harbor quasars. The redshifts of the underlying galaxies match the redshifts of the quasars embedded in their centers, thereby proving that quasars obey the Hubble law and are at the great distances implied by their redshifts. To be noticeable at such great distances, quasars must have 10 to 100 times the luminosity of the brighter normal galaxies. Their variations show that this tremendous energy output is generated in a small volume—in some cases, in a region not much larger than our own solar system. A number of galaxies closer to us also show strong activity at their centers—activity now known to be caused by the same mechanism as the quasars.
Both active galactic nuclei and quasars derive their energy from material falling toward, and forming a hot accretion disk around, a massive black hole. This model can account for the large amount of energy emitted and for the fact that the energy is produced in a relatively small volume of space. It can also explain why jets coming from these objects are seen in two directions: those directions are perpendicular to the accretion disk.
Quasars and galaxies affect each other: the galaxy supplies fuel to the black hole, and the quasar heats and disrupts the gas clouds in the galaxy. The balance between these two processes probably helps explain why the black hole seems always to be about 1/200 the mass of the spherical bulge of stars that surrounds the black hole.
Quasars were much more common billions of years ago than they are now, and astronomers speculate that they mark an early stage in the formation of galaxies. Quasars were more likely to be active when the universe was young and fuel for their accretion disk was more available.
Quasar activity can be re-triggered by a collision between two galaxies, which provides a new source of fuel to feed the black hole.