Now that we have a powerful lens aimed at the deepest regions of the universe, our definition of “awe” has changed slightly when it comes to astronomy photos.
It’s no longer a surprise, really, when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals yet another brilliant, ancient piece of the universe. At this point, we know to expect nothing less than innovative machine.
Instead, every time the telescope sends back an impressive space image, it now evokes more of a “JWST strikes again” feeling. And still, our jaws reasonably drop every time.
This kind of dissonant version of “surprise” has happened again — to a pretty extreme degree. Last week, scientists unveiled JWST’s brilliant view of a cluster of galaxies merging around a supermassive black hole that hosts a rare quasar — also known as an incomprehensibly bright jet of light shooting from the chaotic center of the void.
There’s a lot going on here, I know. But the team behind the finding believe it could be scaled even further.
“We think something dramatic is going to happen in these systems,” said Andrey Vayner, a Johns Hopkins astronomer and co-author of a study on the scene to be published soon in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. For now, you can see a detailed description of the discovery in a paper published on arXiv.
What’s particularly fascinating about this portrait is that the quasar in the hand is considered an “extremely red” quasar, meaning it’s very far away from us and therefore has its roots in a primitive region of space that falls near the beginning of time.
In fact, why does it take year For light to travel through space, every stream of cosmic light that reaches our eyes and our cameras appears as it was a long time 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.
More specifically with this quasar, scientists believe it took about 11.5 billion years for the object’s light to reach Earth, meaning we see it as it was 11.5 billion years ago. This also makes it, according to the team, one of the most powerful of its kind observed from such a vast distance (11.5 billion light-years away, that is).
“The galaxy is at this perfect moment in its life, ready to morph and look completely different in a few billion years,” Vayner said of the realm the quasar is anchored to.
Analyzing a galactic rarity
In the colorful picture provided by Vayner and other researchers, we are looking at several things.
On the left is a Hubble Space Telescope view of the area the team studied, and in the middle is a blown-up version of the spot where JWST zeroed in. Take a look at the far right of this image, where four individual color-coded boxes are visible, and you’ll analyze different aspects of the JWST data analyzed by velocity.
Red things move away from us and blue things towards us, for example.
This classification shows us how each of the galaxies involved in the spectacular merger behaves — including the one holding the extreme black hole and accompanying red quasar, which is, in fact, the only one the team expected to reveal with the multi-billion NASA instrument dollars.
“What you see here is only a small subset of what’s in the data set,” Nadia L. Zakamska, a Johns Hopkins astrophysicist and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “There’s a lot going on here, so first we pointed out what’s really the biggest surprise. Each blob here is a baby galaxy merging into this mommy galaxy, and the colors are at different speeds, and the whole thing is moving in a super complicated way.”
Now, says Zakamska, the team will begin to untangle the movements and strengthen our view even further. But already, we’re looking at information far more incredible than the team expected to begin with. Hubble and the Gemini-North telescope previously showed the possibility of a galaxy in transition, but they certainly didn’t hint at the cluster we can see with JWST’s amazing infrared equipment.
“With previous images, we thought we saw hints that the galaxy was possibly interacting with other galaxies on the merger path because their shapes are being distorted in the process,” Zakamska said. “But after we got the Webb data, I said, ‘I have no idea what we’re even looking at here, what all this is!’ We spent several weeks looking and looking at these images.”
Soon enough, it became clear that JWST was showing us at least three separate galaxies moving incredibly fast, the team said. They even believe that this could mark one of the densest known regions of galaxy formation in the early universe.
Everything about this intricate picture is enchanting. We have the black hole, which Zakamska calls a “monster,” an extremely rare jet of light spitting out of that black hole, and a bunch of galaxies on a collision course — everything looks like it was billions of years in the past.
Well, dare I say it? JWST strikes again, giving us an extremely valuable cosmic vignette. Cue, jaw dropping.
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