Powerful Jets From a Black Hole are Spawning Star Clusters

A composite image of cluster of galaxies called SDSS J1531+3414 in X-ray, optical, and radio light. The overall scene resembles a colorful display of lights as if viewed through a wet, glass window. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/O. Omoruyi et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/G. Tremblay et al.; Radio: ASTRON/LOFAR; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk.

Supermassive black holes are messy feeders, and when they’re gorging on too much material, they can hurl high-energy jets into the surrounding Universe. Astronomers have found one of the most powerful eruptions ever seen, emanating from a black hole 3.8 billion light-years away. The powerful jets are blowing out cavities in intergalactic space and triggering the formation of a huge chain of star clusters.

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JWST Sees a Milky Way-Like Galaxy Coming Together in the Early Universe

The ancient Firefly Sparkle galaxy is precursor to galaxies like the Milky Way. The JWST found ten separate clusters in the galaxy that show how the galaxy is growing through mergers. Image Credit: Mowla et al. 2024.

The gigantic galaxies we see in the Universe today, including our own Milky Way galaxy, started out far smaller. Mergers throughout the Universe’s 13.7 billion years gradually assembled today’s massive galaxies. But they may have begun as mere star clusters.

In an effort to understand the earliest galaxies, the JWST has examined their ancient light for clues as to how they became so massive.

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Even if We Can’t See the First Stars, We Could Detect Their Impact on the First Galaxies

Population III stars were the Universe's first stars. They were extremely massive, luminous stars, and many of them exploded as supernovae. How did they shape the early galaxies? Image Credit: DALL-E

For a long time, our understanding of the Universe’s first galaxies leaned heavily on theory. The light from that age only reached us after travelling for billions of years, and on the way, it was obscured and stretched into the infrared. Clues about the first galaxies are hidden in that messy light. Now that we have the James Webb Space Telescope and its powerful infrared capabilities, we’ve seen further into the past—and with more clarity—than ever before.

The JWST has imaged some of the very first galaxies, leading to a flood of new insights and challenging questions. But it can’t see individual stars.

How can astronomers detect their impact on the Universe’s first galaxies?

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Hubble Sees a Bridge of Stars Connecting Two Galaxies

The galaxy NGC 5427 shines in this new NASA Hubble Space Telescope image. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, and R. Foley (University of California – Santa Cruz); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

The poetic-minded among us like to point out how Nature is a dance. If they’re right, then galaxies sometimes form unwieldy pairs. With the Hubble Space Telescope, we can spot some of these galactic pairs as they approach one another.

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How Does the Cosmic Web Drive Galaxy Evolution?

A computer simulation of what gas and stars in a galaxy cluster look like, and how they look embedded in the cosmic web. The assembly of galaxy clusters has implications for the clumpiness of the Universe throughout time. Credit: Yannick Bahé.
A computer simulation of what gas and stars in a galaxy cluster look like, and how they look embedded in the cosmic web. The assembly of galaxy clusters has implications for the clumpiness of the Universe throughout time. Credit: Yannick Bahé.

Galaxies experience a long strange trip through the cosmic web as they grow and evolve. It turns out that the neighborhoods they spend time in on the journey change their evolution, and that affects their star formation activity and alters their gas content.

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A Black Hole Has Cleared Out Its Neighbourhood

An artist's illustration of a supermassive black hole (SMBH.) The SMBH in a distant galaxy expelled all the material in its accretion disk, clearing out a vast area. Image Credit: ESA

We can’t see them directly, but we know they’re there. Supermassive black holes (SMBHs) likely dwell at the center of every large galaxy. Their overwhelming gravity draws material toward them, where it collects in an accretion disk, waiting its turn to cross the event horizon into oblivion.

But in one galaxy, the SMBH has choked on its meal and spit it out, sending material away at high speeds and clearing out the entire neighbourhood.

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The JWST Discovers a Galaxy That Shouldn’t Exist

The JWST captured this image of an unusual quiescent dwarf galaxy in the background of separate observations. Image Credit: Carleton et al. 2024

Astronomers working with the JWST found a dwarf galaxy they weren’t looking for. It’s about 98 million years away, has no neighbours, and was in the background of an image of other galaxies. This isolated galaxy shows a lack of star-formation activity, which is very unusual for an isolated dwarf.

Most isolated dwarf galaxies form stars, according to a wealth of observations. What’s different about this one?

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Even Early Galaxies Grew Hand-in-Hand With Their Supermassive Black Holes

An artist’s impression of a quasar. Credit: NASA / ESA / J. Olmsted, STScI

Within almost every galaxy there is a supermassive black hole. This by itself implies some kind of formative connection between the two. We have also observed how gas and dust within a galaxy can drive the growth of galactic black holes, and how the dynamics of black holes can both drive star formation or hinder it depending on how active a black hole is. But one area where astronomers still have little information is how galaxies and their black holes interacted in the early Universe. Did black holes drive the formation of galaxies, or did early galaxies fuel the growth of black holes? A recent study suggests the two evolved hand in hand.

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The Aftermath of a Recent Galactic Merger

The Gemini South telescope view of NGC 4753, a peculiar galaxy thought to have experienced a galactic merger. Courtesy International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA
The Gemini South telescope view of NGC 4753, a peculiar galaxy thought to have experienced a galactic merger. Courtesy International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

NGC 4753 is a prime example of what happens after a galactic merger. It looks like a twisted mess, with dust lanes looping around the massive galactic nucleus. Astronomers long wondered what happened to this galaxy, and with a sharp new image created by the Gemini South telescope, they can finally explain its tortured past.

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Feast Your Eyes on 19 Face-On Spiral Galaxies Seen by Webb

These Webb images are part of a large, long-standing project, the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) program, which is supported by more than 150 astronomers worldwide. Before Webb took these images, PHANGS was already brimming with data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope’s Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, including observations in ultraviolet, visible, and radio light. Webb’s near- and mid-infrared contributions have provided several new puzzle pieces. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA

If you’re fascinated by Nature, these images of spiral galaxies won’t help you escape your fascination.

These images show incredible detail in 19 spirals, imaged face-on by the JWST. The galactic arms with their multitudes of stars are lit up in infrared light, as are the dense galactic cores, where supermassive black holes reside.

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