James Webb Telescope reveals a magnificent cluster of galaxies around a quasar within a massive black hole
A team at the Johns Hopkins University unearthed a remarkable finding from the data captured by the James Webb Space Telescope: a cluster of galaxies merging around a rare red quasar within a 'monster' black hole.
The extremely red quasar, known as the SDSSJ165202.64+172852.3, is among the "best candidates" for supermassive black holes, according to the team. They're also hosted by massive galaxies. The high-redshift quasar was captured by the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) aboard the JWST. The finding is extraordinary - it offers an opportunity to study how billions of years ago galaxies merged to form the modern universe.
The team's research is being published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. A preprint is also available on arXiv.
The bright quasar is 11.5 billion years old and is one of the "most powerful ever seen from such distance. As it is a black hole in formation, it keeps eating the gas around it and growing in mass," co-author Andrey Vayner, a Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellow who studies the evolution of galaxies, said in a statement.
"We think something dramatic is about to happen in these systems. The galaxy is at this perfect moment in its lifetime, about to transform and look entirely different in a few billion years."
Webb Telescope detected the presence of at least three galaxies in the region
Though the Webb telescope's early observations were revealed in July, this quasar imagery is one of the 13 "early look" projects "selected through a highly competitive global competition to decide where the telescope is pointed during its first months of operation," as per the release.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer instrument on the Gemini-North telescope had captured earlier observations of this very area and even hinted at the likelihood of a galaxy in transition, but none could predict the presence of multiple galaxies swirling the region.
"With previous images, we thought we saw hints that the galaxy was possibly interacting with other galaxies on the path to the merger because their shapes get distorted in the process and we thought we maybe saw that," said co-principal investigator Nadia L. Zakamska, a Johns Hopkins astrophysicist who helped conceive the project back in 2017 with then-Johns Hopkins postdoc Dominika Wylezalek, who's now the group leader at the University of Heidelberg.
"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."
A 'baby' galaxy merging into a 'mummy' galaxy
The Webb images showed at least three galaxies swirling incredibly fast, suggesting the presence of a large amount of mass. This could be one of the "densest-known areas of galaxy formation in the early universe," said the team.
"What you see here is only a small subset of what's in the data set," Zakamska said. "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. We can now start to untangle the motions."
The team is hoping to understand how such dense, "chaotic" galaxy clusters form and is working on follow-up observations.
Extremely red quasars, with bolometric luminosities exceeding 1047 erg s−1, are a fascinating high-redshift population that is absent in the local universe. They are the best candidates for supermassive black holes accreting at rates at or above the Eddington limit, and they are associated with the most rapid and powerful outflows of ionized gas known to date. They are also hosted by massive galaxies. Here we present the first integral field unit (IFU) observations of a high-redshift quasar obtained by the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) on board the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which targeted SDSSJ165202.64+172852.3, an extremely red quasar at z=2.94. JWST observations reveal extended ionized gas - as traced by [OIII]λ5007Å - in the host galaxy of the quasar, its outflow, and the circumgalactic medium. The complex morphology and kinematics imply that the quasar resides in a very dense environment with several interacting companion galaxies within projected distances of 10-15 kpc. The high density of the environment and the large velocities of the companion galaxies suggest that this system may represent the core of a forming cluster of galaxies. The system is a good candidate for a merger of two or more dark matter halos, each with a mass of a few 1013 M⊙ and traces potentially one of the densest knots at z∼3.
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