NASA’s Webb Area Telescope Sheds Gentle on Galaxy Evolution and Black Holes

Stephan's Quintet Webb

An infinite mosaic of Stephan’s Quintet is the biggest picture to this point from NASA’s James Webb Area Telescope, overlaying about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It incorporates over 150 million pixels and is constructed from virtually 1,000 separate picture information. The visible grouping of 5 galaxies was captured by Webb’s Close to-Infrared Digicam (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Credit score: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The shut proximity of Stephan’s Quintet offers astronomers a ringside seat to galactic mergers and interactions.

Stephan's Quintet MIRI

With its powerful, mid-infrared vision, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows never-before-seen details of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. MIRI pierced through dust-enshrouded regions to reveal huge shock waves and tidal tails, gas, and stars stripped from the outer regions of the galaxies by interactions. It also unveiled hidden areas of star formation. The new information from MIRI provides invaluable insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

NASA’s Webb Sheds Light on Galaxy Evolution, Black Holes

Best known for being prominently featured in the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Stephan’s Quintet is a stunning visual grouping of five galaxies. Now, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This gigantic mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. Constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files, it contains over 150 million pixels. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.

Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group thanks to its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust, and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, the Webb Space Telescope captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster.

Stephan's Quintet (MIRI Spectra)

The top spectrum, from the black hole’s outflow, shows a region filled with hot, ionized gases, including iron, argon, neon, sulfur, and oxygen as denoted by the peaks at given wavelengths. The presence of multiple emission lines from the same element with different degrees of ionization is valuable for understanding the properties and origins of the outflow.
The bottom spectrum reveals that the supermassive black hole has a reservoir of colder, denser gas with large quantities of molecular hydrogen and silicate dust that absorb the light from the central regions of the galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Together, the five galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet are also known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92). Although called a “quintet,” only four of the galaxies are actually close together and caught up in a cosmic dance. The fifth and leftmost galaxy, called NGC 7320, is well in the foreground compared with the other four. In fact, NGC 7320 resides just 40 million light-years from Earth, while the other four galaxies (NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319) are around 290 million light-years away. This is still fairly close in cosmic terms, compared with more distant galaxies billions of light-years away. Studying such relatively nearby galaxies like these helps astronomers better understand structures seen in a much more distant universe.

This proximity provides scientists a ringside seat for witnessing the merging and interactions between galaxies that are so crucial to all of galaxy evolution. Rarely do astronomers witness in so much detail how interacting galaxies trigger star formation in each other, and how the gas in these galaxies is being disturbed. Stephan’s Quintet is an excellent “laboratory” for studying these processes fundamental to all galaxies.

Stephan's Quintet (NIRSpec IFU)

Some of the key emission lines seen by NIRSpec are shown in this image and represent different phases of gas. Atomic hydrogen, in blue and yellow, allows scientists to discover the structure of the outflow. Iron ions, in teal, trace the places where the hot gas is located. Molecular hydrogen, in red, is very cold and dense, and traces both outflowing gas and the reservoir of fuel for the black hole. The bright, active nucleus itself has been removed from these images to better show the structure of the surrounding gas. By using NIRSpec, scientists have gained unprecedented information about the black hole and its outflow. Studying these relatively nearby galaxies helps scientists better understand galaxy evolution in the much more distant universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Tight groups like this may have been more common in the early universe when their superheated, infalling material may have fueled very energetic black holes called quasars. Even today, the topmost galaxy in the group – NGC 7319 – harbors an active galactic nucleus, a supermassive black hole that is about 24 million times the mass of the Sun. It is actively pulling in material and puts out light energy equivalent to 40 billion Suns.

Webb studied the active galactic nucleus in great detail with the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). These instruments’ integral field units (IFUs) – which are a combination of a camera and spectrograph – provided the Webb team with a “data cube,” or collection of images of the galactic core’s spectral features.


The James Webb Area Telescope will use an progressive instrument referred to as an integral area unit (IFU) to seize pictures and spectra at the identical time. This video offers a primary overview of how the IFU works. Credit score: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

Very like medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the IFUs permit scientists to “slice and cube” the knowledge into many pictures for detailed research. Webb pierced via the shroud of mud surrounding the nucleus to disclose scorching gasoline close to the lively black gap and measure the speed of vibrant outflows. The telescope captured these outflows pushed by the black gap in a degree of element that has by no means been seen earlier than.

In NGC 7320, the leftmost and closest galaxy within the visible grouping, Webb was in a position to resolve particular person stars and even the galaxy’s vibrant core.

As a bonus, Webb revealed an enormous sea of hundreds of distant background galaxies harking back to Hubble’s Deep Fields.

Mixed with essentially the most detailed infrared picture ever of Stephan’s Quintet from MIRI and the Close to-Infrared Digicam (NIRCam), the info obtained by Webb will present a bounty of beneficial, new data. For example, it is going to assist astrophysicists perceive the charge at which supermassive black holes feed and develop. Webb additionally sees star-forming areas far more instantly, and it’s in a position to study emissions from the mud – a degree of element that was beforehand unattainable to acquire.

Stephan's Quintet (MIRI IFU)

A few of these key emission options are proven on this picture. In every case, the blue-colored areas point out motion towards the viewer and orange-colored areas signify motion away from the viewer. The argon and neon traces are from scorching spots of super-heated gasoline that is very ionized by the highly effective radiation and winds from the supermassive black gap. The molecular hydrogen line is from colder dense gasoline within the central areas of the galaxy and entrained within the outflowing wind. The velocities are measured by shifts within the wavelengths of a given emission line characteristic. Credit score: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Situated within the constellation Pegasus, Stephan’s Quintet was found by the French astronomer Édouard Stephan in 1877.

The James Webb Area Telescope is the world’s premier area science observatory. Webb will remedy mysteries in our photo voltaic system, look past to distant worlds round different stars, and probe the mysterious constructions and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is a global program led by NASA with its companions, ESA (European Area Company) and the Canadian Area Company.

NASA Headquarters oversees the mission for the company’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Heart in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages Webb for the company and oversees work on the mission carried out by the Area Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and different mission companions. Along with Goddard, a number of NASA facilities contributed to the undertaking, together with the company’s Johnson Area Heart in Houston, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Marshall Area Flight Heart in Huntsville, Alabama, Ames Analysis Heart in California’s Silicon Valley, and others.

NIRCam was constructed by a crew on the College of Arizona and Lockheed Martin’s Superior Know-how Heart.

MIRI was contributed by ESA and NASA, with the instrument designed and constructed by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with

NIRSpec was built for the European Space Agency (ESA) by a consortium of European companies led by Airbus Defence and Space (ADS) with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center providing its detector and micro-shutter subsystems.


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