The JWST is Re-Writing Astronomy Textbooks

The first JWST Deep Field Image, showing large distant galaxies. The telescope's observations are revealing the previously unseen and are forcing a re-write of astronomy textbooks. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

When the James Webb Space Telescope was launched at the end of 2021, we expected stunning images and illuminating scientific results. So far, the powerful space telescope has lived up to our expectations. The JWST has shown us things about the early Universe we never anticipated.

Some of those results are forcing a rewrite of astronomy textbooks.

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There’s Another, More Boring Explanation for those Dyson Sphere Candidate Stars

WISE images of dust-obscured galaxies

Dyson Spheres have been a tantalising digression in the hunt for alien intelligence. Just recently seven stars have been identified as potential candidates with most of their radiation given off in the infrared wavelengths. Potentially this is the signature of heat from a matrix of spacecraft around the star but alas, a new paper has another slightly less exciting explanation; dust obscured galaxies. 

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Black Holes Can Halt Star Formation in Massive Galaxies

This research published in Nature is the first direct confirmation that supermassive black holes are capable of shutting down galaxies

It’s difficult to actually visualise a universe that is changing. Things tend to happen at snails pace albeit with the odd exception. Take the formation of galaxies growing in the early universe. Their immense gravitational field would suck in dust and gas from the local vicinity creating vast collections of stars. In the very centre of these young galaxies, supermassive blackholes would reside turning the galaxy into powerful quasars. A recent survey by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals that black holes can create a powerful solar wind that can remove gas from galaxies faster than they can form into stars, shutting off the creation of new stars.

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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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Sometimes Compact Galaxies Hide Their Black Holes

Illustration of an active quasar. What role does its dark matter halo play in activating the quasar? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Quasars, short for quasi-stellar objects, are one of the most powerful and luminous classes of objects in our Universe. A subclass of active galactic nuclei (AGNs), quasars are extremely bright galactic cores that temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. This is due to the supermassive black holes in the galactic cores that consume material from their accretion disks, a donut-shaped ring of gas and dust that orbit them. This matter is accelerated to close to the speed of light and slowly consumed, releasing energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Based on past observations, it is well known to astronomers that quasars are obscured by the accretion disk that surrounds them. As powerful radiation is released from the SMBH, it causes the dust and gas to glow brightly in visible light, X-rays, gamma-rays, and other wavelengths. However, according to a new study led by researchers from the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy (CEA) at Durham University, quasars can also be obscured by the gas and dust of their entire host galaxies. Their findings could help astronomers better understand the link between SMBHs and galactic evolution.

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The Early Universe Should Be Awash in Active Galaxies, but JWST Isn't Finding Them

Artist view of an active black hole in the early universe. Credit: Boston University/Cosmovision

For decades the most distant objects we could see were quasars. We now know they are powerful active black holes. Active galactic nuclei so distant that they resemble star-like points of light. It tells us that supermassive black holes in the early Universe can be powerful monsters that drive the evolution of their galaxies. We had thought most early supermassive black holes went through such an active phase, but a new study suggests most supermassive black holes don’t.

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eROSITA Sees Changes in the Most Powerful Quasar

Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva
Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

After almost seventy years of study, astronomers are still fascinated by active galactic nuclei (AGN), otherwise known as quasi-stellar objects (or “quasars.”) These are the result of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of massive galaxies, which cause gas and dust to fall in around them and form accretion disks. The material in these disks is accelerated to close to the speed of light, causing it to release tremendous amounts of radiation in the visible, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma-ray, and X-ray wavelengths. In fact, quasars are so bright that they temporarily outshine every star in their host galaxy’s disk combined.

The brightest quasar observed to date, 100,000 billion times as luminous as our Sun, is known as SMSS J114447.77-430859.3 (J1144). This AGN is hosted by a galaxy located roughly 9.6 billion light years from Earth between the constellations Centaurus and Hydra. Using data from the eROSITA All Sky Survey and other space telescopes, an international team of astronomers conducted the first X-ray observations of J1144. This data allowed the team to investigate prevailing theories about AGNs that could provide new insight into the inner workings of quasars and how they affect their host galaxies.

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Advanced Life Should Have Already Peaked Billions of Years Ago

The Drake Equation, a mathematical formula for the probability of finding life or advanced civilizations in the universe. Credit: University of Rochester

Did humanity miss the party? Are SETI, the Drake Equation, and the Fermi Paradox all just artifacts of our ignorance about Advanced Life in the Universe? And if we are wrong, how would we know?

A new study focusing on black holes and their powerful effect on star formation suggests that we, as advanced life, might be relics from a bygone age in the Universe.

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Dust is Hiding how Powerful Quasars Really are

An artist’s impression of what the dust around a quasar might look like from a light year away. Credit Peter Z. Harrington

In the 1970s, astronomers discovered that the persistent radio source at the center of our galaxy was a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Today, this gravitational behemoth is known as Sagittarius A* and has a mass roughly 4 million times that of the Sun. Since then, surveys have shown that SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies and play a vital role in star formation and galactic evolution. In addition, the way these black holes consume gas and dust causes their respective galaxies to emit a tremendous amount of radiation from their Galactic Centers.

These are what astronomers refer to as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), or quasars, which can become so bright that they temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. In fact, AGNs are the most powerful compact steady sources of energy in the Universe, which is why astronomers are always trying to get a closer look at them. For instance, a new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) indicates that scientists have substantially underestimated the amount of energy emitted by AGN by not recognizing the extent to which their light is dimmed by dust.

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Webb’s New Image Reveals a Galaxy Awash in Star Formation

This JWST image shows NGC 7469, a luminous, face-on spiral galaxy approximately 90 000 light-years in diameter that lies roughly 220 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. Image Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus, A. S. Evans

When a spiral galaxy presents itself just right, observations reveal more detail. That’s the case with NGC 7469, a spiral galaxy about 220 million light-years away. It’s face-on towards us, and the James Webb Space Telescope captured its revealing scientific portrait.

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