NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured a dramatic picture of a cluster of galaxies merging around a massive black hole that hosts a rare quasar, a bright jet of light erupting from the chaotic center of the void.
“We think something dramatic is about to happen in these systems,” said Andrey Vayner, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of a study on the scene, which will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. For now, a detailed description of the discovery can be found in an article published on arXiv, writes CNET.
What’s particularly fascinating about this is that the quasar we’re looking at is considered an “extremely red” quasar, meaning it’s extremely far away from us and therefore physically rooted in the region of space at the beginning of time.
Essentially, because light takes time to travel through space, every stream of cosmic light that reaches our eyes and our machines is seen 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.
Speaking more specifically about this quasar, scientists believe that 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 gigantic distance (11.5 billion light-years).
Left is a Hubble Space Telescope view of the region the team studied, and center is a zoomed-in version of the spot focused on by the James Webb Telescope.
“What you see here is only a small subset of what’s in the data set,” said Nadia L. Zakamska, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study. “There’s just too much going on here so we first highlighted what really is the biggest surprise. Every blob here is a baby galaxy merging into this mommy galaxy and the colors are different velocities and the whole thing is moving in an extremely complicated way.”
“With previous images we thought we saw hints that the galaxy was possibly interacting with other galaxies on the path to merger because their shapes get distorted in the process and we thought we maybe saw that,” Zakamska said. “But after we got the Webb 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.”
It soon became clear that the Webb telescope showed at least three separate galaxies moving incredibly fast, the research team said. They even think it could represent one of the densest known regions of galaxy formation in the early universe.