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Webb unlocks secrets of one of the most distant galaxies ever seen

Looking deeply into space and time, two teams using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have studied the exceptionally luminous galaxy GN-z11, which existed when our 13.8 billion-year-old universe was only about 430 million years old.

Initially detected with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, this galaxy — one of the youngest and most distant ever observed — is so bright that it is challenging scientists to understand why. Now, GN-z11 is giving up some of its secrets.

Vigorous Black Hole Is Most Distant Ever Found

A team studying GN-z11 with Webb found the first clear evidence that the galaxy is hosting a central, supermassive black hole that is rapidly accreting matter. Their finding makes this the farthest active supermassive black hole spotted to date.

“We found extremely dense gas that is common in the vicinity of supermassive black holes accreting gas,” explained principal investigator Roberto Maiolino of the Cavendish Laboratory and the Kavli Institute of Cosmology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “These were the first clear signatures that GN-z11 is hosting a black hole that is gobbling matter.”

Using Webb, the team also found indications of ionized chemical elements typically observed near accreting supermassive black holes. Additionally, they discovered a very powerful wind being expelled by the galaxy. Such high-velocity winds are typically driven by processes associated with vigorously accreting supermassive black holes.

“Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) has revealed an extended component, tracing the host galaxy, and a central, compact source whose colors are consistent with those of an accretion disk surrounding a black hole,” said investigator Hannah Übler, also of the Cavendish Laboratory and the Kavli Institute.

Together, this evidence shows that GN-z11 hosts a 2-million-solar-mass, supermassive black hole in a very active phase of consuming matter, which is why it’s so luminous.

Pristine Gas Clump in GN-z11’s Halo Intrigues Researchers

A second team, also led by Maiolino, used Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph) to find a gaseous clump of helium in the halo surrounding GN-z11.

“The fact that we don’t see anything else beyond helium suggests that this clump must be fairly pristine,” said Maiolino. “This is something that was expected by theory and simulations in the vicinity of particularly massive galaxies from these epochs — that there should be pockets of pristine gas surviving in the halo, and these may collapse and form Population III star clusters.”

Finding the never-before-seen Population III stars — the first generation of stars formed almost entirely from hydrogen and helium — is one of the most important goals of modern astrophysics. These stars are anticipated to be very massive, very luminous, and very hot. Their expected signature is the presence of ionized helium and the absence of chemical elements heavier than helium.

The formation of the first stars and galaxies marks a fundamental shift in cosmic history, during which the universe evolved from a dark and relatively simple state into the highly structured and complex environment we see today.

In future Webb observations, Maiolino, Übler, and their team will explore GN-z11 in greater depth, and they hope to strengthen the case for the Population III stars that may be forming in its halo.

The research on the pristine gas clump in GN-z11’s halo has been accepted for publication by Astronomy & Astrophysics. The results of the study of GN-z11’s black hole were published in the journal Nature on January 17, 2024. The data was obtained as part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES), a joint project between the NIRCam and NIRSpec teams.

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