Radio waves also come from outside the Milky Way. These extragalactic radio sources have great implications for cosmology, the theory of the overall structure of the universe. Spiral and barred spiral galaxies, such as the Milky Way, are only weak sources of radio waves, but certain giant elliptical and irregular galaxies emit more than a million times as much radio energy as ordinary galaxies. Such galaxies are usually marked by dust lanes, which are unusual for galaxies lacking spiral arms. Some of these objects can be detected only by their radio emission, but in other cases the position of the radio source has been determined accurately enough to allow astronomers to identify the radio source with a galaxy visible in an image taken with a large optical telescope.
Other radio sources were optically identified with what at first appeared to be faint blue stars. However, it was discovered that these "stars" had enormous red shifts (shifting of the spectral lines toward the red end of the spectrum) that implied, according to Hubble's law, that they were the most remote objects ever detected and that their intrinsic intensities were about 1000 times greater than an entire galaxy. These extraordinary objects were named quasi-stellar radio sources, which was soon shortened to quasars. Their nature is still not completely understood.
Many thousands of extragalactic radio sources are known. Of those optically identified radio sources, roughly one third are quasars, and the remainder are radio galaxies. In addition to these localized radio sources, there is uniform low-level radio noise from every direction in the sky. This cosmic background radiation is believed to be an indication that the universe began with an explosive big bang rather than having always existed in an unchanging steady state. More recently radio astronomy has discovered pulsars, thought to be rapidly spinning neutron stars that radiate bursts of energy on and off regularly between 1 and 30 times a second.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.