James Webb Space Telescope observes galaxies merging around ‘monster’ black hole
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Astronomers have discovered clusters of galaxies merging around rare red quasars, supermassive “monster” black holes that voraciously feed on gas and other matter.
An international team of scientists made a startling discovery while looking billions of years into the past with James Webb’s Space Telescope (JWST). The discovery represents an opportunity to observe how early galaxies merged to form the universe we know today. The dizzyingly bright and extremely red quasar known as SDSS J165202.64 + 172852.3 is about 11.5 billion years old, researchers say, among those ever observed from such an extraordinary distance. He is one of the most powerful quasars.
“We think something dramatic is going to happen in these systems,” said study co-author Andrei Vayner, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “The galaxy is at this perfect moment in its lifetime, about to transform and look entirely different in a few billion years.”
Earlier observations of this region of space using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii had revealed the quasar and hinted at a galaxy in a transitional phase. But it was only further observation with JWST that revealed not one but at least three galaxies all swirling around the quasar.
“With previous images, we thought we saw hints that the galaxy was possibly interacting with other galaxies on the path to a merger because their shapes get distorted in the process and we thought we maybe saw that,” Nadia L. Zakamska, co-principal investigator and Johns Hopkins astrophysicist, said in the same statement. “But after we got the JWST data, I was like, `I have no idea what we’re even looking at here, what is all this stuff!’ We spent several weeks just staring and staring at these images.”
The JWST images of the region also showed that the three galaxies are moving incredibly quickly, suggesting the presence of a tremendous mass, which leads the team to think this could be the densest area of galaxy formation ever seen in the early universe. “Even a dense knot of dark matter is not enough to explain it,” said Dominika Weirezarek, an astronomer at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, who led the study. I suspect we are looking at areas where the rings are coalescing.”
Even Vayner, who a decade ago she envisioned observing this quasar at the JWST, said the space telescope, which just started sending scientific images back to Earth in July, has made so many observations of the region. I was shocked that I provided it clearly.
The team is now tracking observations of this unexpected cluster of galaxies to understand how such dense clusters formed in the early universe, and how this process may explain the supermassive black lurking in the center of the cluster. We aim to unravel the mystery of how it is affected by the hall.
“What you see here is just a fraction of what we have in the dataset,” Zakamska said.
“There’s so much going on here that I really highlighted the biggest surprise first,” she said. There are, and the colors have different velocities, and they’re all moving in very complex ways.
The team’s work is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, and preprints are also available on the paper repository arXiv.