Now that we have a powerful lens pointed at the deepest regions of the universe, our definition of “surprise” has changed slightly when it comes to astronomy photos.
It’s no longer surprising, really, that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is revealing another bright, ancient chunk of the cosmos. At this point, we know to expect nothing less from the pioneer machine.
Instead, every time the telescope returns a jaw-dropping space image, it now elicits more of a “JWST strikes again” feeling. And yet, our jaws rightfully drop every time.
This kind of dissonant version of “surprise” happened again – to a rather extreme degree. Last week, scientists presented the JWST’s brilliant view of a cluster of galaxies merging around a massive black hole that harbors a rare quasar – aka an incomprehensibly bright jet of light spewing from the chaotic center of the void.
There’s a lot going on here, I know. But the team behind the discovery believe it could escalate further.
“We think something dramatic is about to happen in these systems,” said Andrey Vayner, a Johns Hopkins astronomer and co-author of a study of the scene soon to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, in a statement. For now, you can check out a detailed overview of the discovery in an article published on arXiv.
What is particularly fascinating about this portrait is that the quasar at hand is considered an “extremely red” quasar, which means that it is very distant from us and therefore physically rooted in a primitive region of the world. space that falls near the beginning of time.
Basically, because you have to time for light to travel through space, every stream of cosmic light that reaches our eyes and machinery is seen as it was long ago. Even moonlight takes about 1.3 seconds to reach Earth, so when we look at the moon, we see it 1.3 seconds in the past.
Specifically with this quasar, scientists believe it took around 11.5 billion years for light from the object to reach Earth, meaning we see it as it was 11 years ago. .5 billion years. It also makes it, according to the team, one of the most powerful of its kind seen at such a gargantuan distance (i.e. 11.5 billion light-years away).
“The galaxy is at this perfect time in its life, about to transform and look entirely different in a few billion years,” Vayner said of the domain in which the quasar is anchored.
Analyze a galactic rarity
In the colorful image provided by Vayner and his fellow researchers, we are looking at several things.
On the left is a Hubble Space Telescope view of the region studied by the team, and in the middle is a zoomed-in version of where the JWST focused. Take a look at the far right of this image, where four individually color coded boxes are visible and you will analyze different aspects of the JWST data broken down by speed.
The red stuff moves away from us and the blue stuff towards us, for example.
This classification shows us how each of the galaxies involved in the spectacular merger behaves – including the one that contains the extreme black hole and the accompanying red quasar, which is, in fact, the only one the team expected. find out with NASA’s billion-dollar instrument.
“What you see here is just a small subset of what’s in the dataset,” said Nadia L. Zakamska, Johns Hopkins astrophysicist and co-author of the study, in a statement. “There’s too much going on here, so we’ve highlighted what’s really the biggest surprise first. Every drop here is a baby galaxy merging into this mama galaxy and the colors are at different speeds and everything is moving in different directions. ‘an extremely complicated way.”
Now, says Zakamska, the team will start to unravel the moves and improve our vision even further. Already, however, we’re looking at some more incredible information than the team initially expected. Hubble and the Gemini-North Telescope have previously shown the possibility of a galaxy in transition, but certainly haven’t hinted at the swarm we can see with JWST’s impressive infrared equipment.
“With the previous images, we thought we saw hints that the galaxy was possibly interacting with other galaxies on its way to merging because their shapes were distorting in the process,” Zakamska said. “But after I got the data from Webb, I was like, ‘I have no idea what we’re looking at here, what is all this!’ We spent several weeks watching and looking at this footage.”
Soon it became clear that the JWST was showing us at least three separate galaxies moving incredibly fast, the team said. They even think it could mark one of the densest galaxy-forming zones known in the early universe.
Everything about this complex picture is fascinating. We have the black hole, which Zakamska calls a “monster”, a very rare jet of light spitting out of this black hole, and a group of galaxies on a collision course – all seen as they were billions of years in the past.
So, dare I say it? The JWST has struck again, giving us an extremely valuable cosmic vignette. Cue, jaw drop.
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