Using the James Webb Space Telescope to look back in time to the early Universe, astronomers discovered a surprise: a cluster of galaxies merging around a rare red quasar in a massive black hole. The findings from Johns Hopkins University and an international team provide an unprecedented opportunity to observe how galaxies merged into the modern universe billions of years ago.
“We think something dramatic is going to happen in these systems,” said study co-author Andrey Vayner, a Johns Hopkins postdoctoral researcher who studies the evolution of galaxies. “The galaxy is at this perfect moment in its life, about to transform and look very different in a few billion years.”
The work is in print in Astrophysical Journal Letters and available today on the arXiv paper repository.
Launched last December by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space. The first general observations were revealed in July, but these quasar images are one of just 13 early-look projects selected through a highly competitive global competition to decide where to aim the telescope during its first months of use.
In Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins team learned that their chosen target would be sighted within days of the reveal of the Webb’s debut photos by President Biden on July 11, so they stayed close to their computers. That following summer Saturday, Vayner and graduate student Yuzo Ishikawa were repeatedly refreshing the Webb database when suddenly the data arrived, triggering a hastily assembled multinational team confab on Sunday to try to make sense of the stunningly detailed raw images.
Although previous observations of this region by NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer instrument on the Gemini-North telescope had located the quasar and indicated the possibility of a galaxy in transition, no one suspected that with Webb’s sharp imaging they would see multiple galaxies, at least three, swirling through the region.
“In previous images, we thought we saw clues that the galaxy might be interacting with other galaxies on the path to fusion, as their shapes get distorted in the process, and we thought we might be seeing that,” said co-lead researcher Nadia L. Zakamska, a Johns Hopkins astrophysicist who helped conceive the project in 2017 with then-Johns Hopkins postdoc Dominika Wylezalek, who is now the group leader at the University of Heidelberg. “But after we got the Webb data, I thought, ‘I have no idea what we’re looking at here, what’s all this!” We’ve been staring at these images for weeks.”
The Webb revealed at least three galaxies moving incredibly fast, suggesting a large amount of mass is present. The team believes this could be one of the densest known regions of galaxy formation in the early universe.
Because light takes time to travel to us, when we look at objects like these in the very distant regions of the universe, we see light emitted about 11.5 billion years ago, or from the earliest stages of evolution. of the universe. Huge galaxy swarms like this were probably common then, Zakamska said.
“It’s super exciting to be one of the first people to see this really cool object,” said Ishikawa, who helped interpret the galaxy swarm.
Even Vayner, who had dreamed of using Webb data since he first learned about the telescope as a college student more than a decade ago, and thought he knew what to expect, was shocked when his long-studied place in the universe became a brightness.
“It will really change our understanding of this object,” said Vayner, who was instrumental in adapting the raw Webb data for scientific analysis.
The blindingly bright quasar, fed by what Zakamska calls a “monster” black hole at the center of the galactic vortex, is a rare “extremely red” quasar, about 11.5 billion years old and one of the most powerful ever seen from such a distance. a distance. It’s essentially a black hole in formation, Vayner said, eating up the gas around it and growing in mass. The clouds of dust and gas between the Earth and the glowing gas near the black hole make the quasar red.
The team is already working on follow-up observations in this unexpected galaxy cluster, hoping to better understand how dense, chaotic galaxy clusters form and how it is affected by supermassive black holes at its heart.
“What you’re seeing here is just a small subset of what’s in the dataset,” Zakamska said. “There’s just too much going on here, so we’ve highlighted first what’s really the biggest surprise. Every blob here is a baby galaxy merging into this breast milky way and the colors are at different speeds and the whole thing is moving in an extremely complicated way.” We can now start untangling the movements.”
Other authors include: Wylezalek, Caroline Bertemes, Weizhe Liu, Jorge K. Barrera-Ballesteros, Hsiao-Wen Chen, Andy D. Goulding, Jenny E. Greene, Kevin N. Hainline, Nora Lutzgendorf, Fred Hamann, Timothy Heckman, Sean D Johnson, Dieter Lutz, Vincenzo Mainieri, Roberto Maiolino, Nicole PH Nesvadba, Patrick Ogle and Eckhard Sturm.