Webb Sheds Light on How Galactic Interactions Drive Early Galaxy Evolution

The James Webb Space Telescope of NASA shows previously unseen characteristics of the galaxy cluster known as “Stephan’s Quintet.” Due to their vicinity, astronomers may see galactic mergers and interactions up close. Scientists rarely get to see in such great detail how the gas in these interacting galaxies is being disturbed and how they induce star formation in one another.

Stephan’s Quintet (NIRCam and MIRI Composite Image). Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.

Stephan's Quintet is a great “laboratory” for researching these processes that are essential to all galaxies. In addition, the picture provides previously unseen information on supermassive black hole-driven outflows from one of the group’s galaxies. When superheated, infalling matter may have driven very active black holes in the early cosmos, and tight galaxy clusters such as these may have been more prevalent.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has provided a fresh perspective on Stephan’s Quintet. Webb’s greatest image yet, this massive mosaic spans nearly one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter.

It comprises around 1,000 image files and has over 150 million pixels. The data from Webb provide new perspectives on how galactic interactions may have influenced galaxy development in the early universe.

Webb reveals previously unseen characteristics in this galaxy group because of its strong infrared vision and very high spatial resolution. The image is adorned with dazzling starburst areas and clusters of millions of newborn stars. Gravitational interactions cause some of the galaxies to produce sweeping tails of gas, dust, and stars. The most spectacular image, taken by Webb as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, slams into the cluster and shows enormous shock waves.

The Hickson Compact Group 92 comprises the five galaxies that make up Stephan’s Quintet (HCG 92). Only four of the so-called “quintet” of galaxies are close to one another and engaged in a cosmic dance. NGC 7320, the fifth and leftmost galaxy, is clearly in the foreground when contrasted with the other four.

The distance between NGC 7320 and Earth is 40 million light-years, but the distance between the other four galaxies—NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319—is around 290 million light-years. This is still quite near in cosmic terms compared to other galaxies that are billions of light-years away. These relatively close-by galaxies are being studied to better understand the structures of the far more distant cosmos.

Astronomers get a front-row view of the galaxy mergers and interactions essential to galaxy development because of this close proximity. Scientists rarely see how the gas in these interacting galaxies is being disturbed and how they induce star formation in one another. Stephan's Quintet is a great “laboratory” for researching these processes that are essential to all galaxies.

When their superheated, infalling material may have fueled quasars, which are very active black holes, tight clusters such as these may have been more prevalent in the early universe. The highest galaxy in the group, NGC 7319, still has a supermassive black hole that is 24 million times as big as the Sun as its active galactic center. It actively draws in the matter and emits light with 40 billion Sun’s worth of energy.

With the help of the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), Webb thoroughly investigated the active galactic nucleus. The Webb team received a “data cube,” or collection of images of the spectral properties of the galactic center, from these sensors’ integral field units (IFUs), which are a combination of a camera and spectrograph.

The IFUs allow researchers to “slice and dice” the information into several pictures for in-depth analysis, like medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Webb had to cut through the dust around the nucleus to see the hot gas close to the active black hole and assess the speed of brilliant outflows. The telescope saw these black hole-driven outflows in unprecedented detail.

Webb could distinguish individual stars in NGC 7320, the leftmost and nearest galaxy in the visible cluster, and the galaxy’s luminous center.

A bonus discovery by Webb was a massive sea of millions of distant background galaxies resembling Hubble’s Deep Fields.

The data from Webb will provide a wealth of valuable information when combined with the most accurate infrared picture of Stephan’s Quintet yet obtained from MIRI and the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).

For instance, it will aid in understanding the growth rate and feeding of supermassive black holes. Webb detects star-forming areas far more clearly and can now investigate radiation from the dust at a degree of precision that was previously not conceivable.

Stephan’s Quintet, in the constellation Pegasus, was discovered in 1877 by a French astronomer named Édouard Stephan.

The best space scientific observatory in the world is the James Webb Space Telescope. In addition to looking beyond our solar system to distant planets orbiting other stars, Webb will delve into the enigmatic architecture and origins of the cosmos and people’s role within it. NASA runs a multinational project called Webb in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency and ESA (European Space Agency).

NASA Headquarters manage the mission on behalf of the Science Mission Directorate. Webb is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which also coordinates work on the project by Northrop Grumman, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and other mission partners. Along with Goddard, other NASA facilities such as the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, and others also contributed to the project.

A team from the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center created NIRCam.

In collaboration with JPL and the University of Arizona, a group of publicly financed European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) planned and constructed MIRI with funding from ESA and NASA.

A group of European firms under the leadership of Airbus Defense and Space (ADS) constructed NIRSpec for the European Space Agency (ESA), with the detector and micro-shutter subsystems coming from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Source: https://webb.nasa.gov/

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