The amazing capabilities of JWST have been demonstrated by a close-up look at the center of one of the galaxies in Stephan’s Quintet.
One of the five galaxies in Stephan’s Quintet, NGC 7319, had a supermassive black hole that JWST was able to characterize the atmosphere surrounding. This was one of the telescope’s first scientific objectives, and it allowed scientists to see the gas in the active galactic core at hitherto undetected wavelengths.
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It was able to observe atomic hydrogen and hydrogen molecules, which are created when two hydrogen atoms link together, using its near-infrared instrument. Iron ions were also observed. This is a great marker for the location of the heated gas surrounding the supermassive black hole. Black holes don’t produce light, but when they devour, like this one, they make a mess. The material they are munching on becomes extremely heated due to the tremendous gravitational pull.
The supermassive black hole at the heart of NGC 7319 is six times as big as Sagittarius A*, which is located at the Milky Way’s galactic core, or 24 million times more massive than our Sun. But unlike Sagittarius A*, this supermassive black hole emits radiation at a phenomenal rate, comparable to the brightness of 40 billion Suns all at once.
JWST was able to observe more than just iron and hydrogen. The telescope observed an outflow of hot gas that contained hot, ionized gases like iron, argon, neon, sulfur, and oxygen in its mid-infrared studies. Additionally, the near vicinity of the black hole is rich in hydrogen and silicate dust, which are much smaller than sand grains.
JWST also recorded the gas’s motion and velocity. The wavelength of electromagnetic radiation of objects that emit light changes as they travel closer to or further away from you, similar to how the ambulance’s siren gets louder as it gets closer to you. The telescope could thus determine the direction and speed of the gas’s motion.
We can comprehend supermassive black holes anywhere in the Universe by studying them in surrounding galaxies. The Stephan’s Quintet consists of four galaxies that are tightly clustered together and one that, only optically, seems to be nearby. The group’s distance from Earth is 290 million light-years.
The 150 million pixel image of the group taken by JWST was put together from around 1,000 different image files. The luminous core of NGC 7320, the closest (and leftmost) object in the group, as well as individual stars, were seen through the telescope.