Early Galaxies Looked Nothing Like What We See Today

Though an estimated 100 million black holes roam among the stars in our Milky Way galaxy, astronomers have never identified an isolated black hole – until now. Following six years of meticulous observations, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has provided, for the first time ever, strong evidence for a lone black hole plying interstellar space. The black hole that was detected lies about 5,000 light-years away, in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of our galaxy. However, its discovery allows astronomers to estimate, statistically, that the nearest isolated black hole to Earth might be as close as 80 light-years. Black holes are born from rare, monstrous stars (less than one-thousandth of the galaxy’s stellar population) that are at least 20 times more massive than our Sun. These stars explode as supernovae, and the remnant core is crushed by gravity into a black hole. Because the self-detonation is not perfectly symmetrical, the black hole may get a kick, and go careening through our galaxy like a blasted cannonball. Hubble can’t photograph the wayward black hole because it doesn’t emit any light, but instead swallows all radiation due to its intense gravitational pull. Instead, Hubble measurements capture the ghostly gravitational footprint of how the stealthy black hole warps space, which then deflects starlight from anything that momentarily lines up exactly behind it. Ground-based telescopes, which monitor the brightness of millions of stars in the rich star fields in the direction of the central bulge of our Milky Way, look for the tell-tale sudden brightening of one of them when a massive object passes between us and the star. Then Hubble follows up on the most interesting such events. Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, along with his team, made the discovery in a survey designed to find just such isolated black holes. The warping of space due to the gravity of a foreground object passing in front of a star located far behind it will momentarily bend and amplify the light of the background star as it passes in front of it. The phenomenon, called gravitational microlensing, is used to study stars and exoplanets in the approximately 20,000 events seen so far inside our galaxy. The signature of a foreground black hole stands out as unique among other microlensing events. The very intense gravity of the black hole will stretch out the duration of the lensing event for over 200 days. Also, If the intervening object was instead a foreground star, it would cause a transient color change in the starlight as measured because the light from the foreground and background stars would momentarily be blended together. But no color change was seen in the black hole event. Next, Hubble was used to measure the amount of deflection of the background star’s image by the black hole. Hubble is capable of the extraordinary precision needed for such measurements. The star’s image was offset from where it normally would be by two milliarcseconds. That’s equivalent to measuring the diameter of a 25-cent coin in Los Angeles as seen from New York City. This astrometric microlensing technique provided information on the mass, distance, and velocity of the black hole. The amount of deflection by the black hole’s intense warping of space allowed Sahu’s team to estimate it weighs seven solar masses. The isolated black hole is traveling across the galaxy at 90,000 miles per hour (fast enough to travel from Earth to the moon in less than three hours). That’s faster than most of the other neighboring stars in that region of our galaxy. “Astrometric microlensing in conceptually simple but observationally very tough,” said Sahu. “It is the only technique for identifying isolated black holes.” When the black hole passed in front of a background star located 28,000 light-years away in the galactic bulge, the starlight coming toward Earth was amplified for a duration of 265 days as the black hole passed by. However, it took several years of Hubble observations to follow how the background star’s position appeared to be deflected by the bending of light by the foreground black hole. The existence of stellar-mass black holes has been known since the early 1970’s, but all of them—until now—are found in binary star systems. Gas from the companion star falls into the black hole, and is heated to such high temperatures that it emits X rays. About two dozen black holes have had their masses measured in X-ray binaries through their gravitational effect on their companions. Black hole masses in X-ray binaries inside our galaxy range from 5 to 20 solar masses. Black holes detected in other galaxies by gravitational waves from mergers between black holes and companion objects have been as high as 90 solar masses. “Detections of isolated black holes will provide new insights into the population of these objects in our Milky Way,” said Sahu. He expects that his program will uncover more free-roaming black holes inside our galaxy. But it is a needle-in-a-haystack search. The prediction is that only one in 1500 microlensing events are caused by isolated black holes. NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will discover several thousand microlensing events out of which many are expected to be black holes, and the deflections will be measured with very high accuracy. In a 1916 paper on general relativity, Albert Einstein predicted that his theory could be tested by observing the sun’s gravity offsetting the apparent position of a background star. This was tested by astronomer Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse on May 29, 1919. Eddington measured a background star being offset by 2 arc seconds, validating Einstein’s theories. Both scientists could hardly have imagined that over a century later this same technique would be used – with unimaginable precision of a thousandfold better — to look for black holes across the galaxy.

Talk to anyone about galaxies and it often conjurs up images of spiral or elliptical galaxie. Thanks to a survey by the James Webb Space Telescope it seems the early Universe was full of galaxies of different shapes. In the first 6 billion years up to 80% of the galaxies were flat, surfboard like. But that’s not it, there were others like pool noodles too, yet why they looked so different back then is a mystery.

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A Galaxy Seen When the Universe was Only 332 Million Years Old

The second- and fourth-most distant galaxies ever seen (UNCOVER z-13 and UNCOVER z-12) have been confirmed using the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The galaxies are located in Pandora’s Cluster (Abell 2744), show here as near-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated to visible-light colors. The scale of the main cluster image is labelled in arcseconds, which is a measure of angular distance in the sky. The circles on the black-and-white images, showing the galaxies in the NIRCam-F277W filter band onboard JWST, indicate an aperture size of 0.32 arcsec.
JWST Deep Field showing the location of the second and fourth most distant galaxies in the Universe (Credit: NASA with Composition: Dani Zemba/Penn State)

It’s wonderful to watch the fascination on people’s faces when you explain to them that studying distant objects in the Universe means looking back in time! Reach out to the furthest corners of the Cosmos and you can see objects so far away that the light left them long before our Solar System even existed. With the commissioning of the JWST the race was on to push the boundaries even further and hunt down the most distant galaxy in the Universe and maybe even the first galaxies to ever have formed.

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A Galaxy Only 350 Million Years Old Had Surprising Amounts of Metal

The JWST has the power to see the most ancient galaxies in the Universe, as shown in this image of its first deep field. Now, astrophysicists have found carbon in one of these ancient galaxies. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Astrophysicists working with the JWST have found a surprising amount of metal in a galaxy only 350 million years after the Big Bang. How does that fit in with our understanding of the Universe?

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What Can Slime Mold Teach Us About the Universe?

A simulation of the cosmic web, diffuse tendrils of gas that connect galaxies across the universe. Credit: Illustris Collaboration

What can slime molds tell us about the large-scale structure of the Universe and the evolution of galaxies? These things might seem incongruous, yet both are part of nature, and Earthly slime molds seem to have something to tell us about the Universe itself. Vast filaments of gas threading their way through the Universe have a lot in common with slime molds and their tubular networks.

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JWST Sees Organic Molecules Ludicrously Far Away

Astronomers using the Webb telescope discovered evidence of complex organic molecules in a galaxy more than 12 billion light-years away. In this false-color Webb image, the foreground galaxy is shown in blue, while the background galaxy is red. The organic molecules are highlighted in orange. Graphic courtesy J. Spilker / S. Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA

When astronomers used the JWST to look at a galaxy more than 12 billion light years away, they were also looking back in time. And when they found organic molecules in that distant galaxy, they found them in the early Universe.

The organic molecules are usually found where stars are forming, but in this case, they’re not.

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The James Webb Links Modern Green Pea Galaxies to Ancient Galaxies in the Cosmic Dawn

A trio of faint objects (circled) captured in the James Webb Space Telescope’s deep image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 exhibit properties remarkably similar to rare, small galaxies called “green peas” found much closer to home. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

When the James Webb Space Telescope lifted off from Earth on Christmas Day in 2021, it carried a lot of expectations with it. One of its scientific goals is to seek the light from the first galaxies in the Universe and to study how galaxies form and evolve.

A new paper shows that the JWST is doing just that and has found a link between the first galaxies and rare galaxies in our backyard that astronomers call “Green Pea” galaxies.

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