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Webb space telescope snaps pic of a very powerful, and unique, object

Webb space telescope snaps pic of a very powerful, and unique, object

It might look puny. But this pink object is awfully powerful.

Using the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists captured a rich image teeming with some 20,000 galaxies. At center is one of the most brilliant objects in space: a quasar, which is a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy that’s feasting on bounties of cosmic matter — and releasing outbursts of energy as it shreds apart and eats. That’s why such an object is millions to billions times brighter than the sun.

In the image above and below, researchers captured this galactic scene to better grasp how the universe evolved over 13 billion years ago, at a pivotal time in cosmic history when colossal clouds of murky gas began to clear up. The universe’s Dark Ages had finally ended.

Here’s what you’re seeing:

  • The quasar, formally dubbed “Quasar SDSS J0100+2802,” is directly at center in the image. It appears pink and has six “diffraction spikes,” caused by how the object’s radiant light hits the Webb telescope’s six-sided mirror. The extremely distant quasar is ancient, at around 13 billion years old. “Light from these distant quasars began its journey to Webb when the universe was very young and took billions of years to arrive,” NASA explained(opens in a new tab). “We will see things as they were long ago, not as they are today.”

  • In the foreground are bluish stars, also with diffraction spikes.

  • Everything else is an entire galaxy in deep space. You’re also seeing them as they existed billions of years ago.

Thousands of galaxies in deep space.

Can you spot the quasar?
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / Simon Lilly (ETH Zürich) / Daichi Kashino (Nagoya University) / Jorryt Matthee (ETH Zürich) / Christina Eilers (MIT) / Rob Simcoe (MIT) / Rongmon Bordoloi (NCSU) / Ruari Mackenzie (ETH Zürich) // Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI) / Ruari Macken

This distant quasar plays an important role in understanding how our universe evolved. Quasars are so bright, they appear as space “flashlights,” which help to illuminate the ancient gas between Webb and the quasar. This allows astronomers to observe what transpired some 900 million years after the universe(opens in a new tab) formed, when things in the cosmos changed dramatically: The opaque cloudiness of the universe cleared, and it became transparent.

With the help of Webb, the most powerful space observatory ever built, researchers are seeing that early galaxies were churning out stars, producing radiation that ultimately altered the thick gases and cleared the once-dark universe.

“Galaxies, which are made up of billions of stars, are ionizing the gas around them, effectively transforming it into transparent gas,” Simon Lilly, an astrophysicist at ETH Zürich, a research university in Switzerland, said in a statement(opens in a new tab).

An artist's illustration of a quasar at a galactic center.

An artist’s illustration of a quasar at a galactic center.
Credit: NASA / ESA / J. Olmsted (STScI)

This research is part of a Webb science mission called Emission-line galaxies and Intergalactic Gas in the Epoch of Reionization, or EIGER. In the coming year, researchers plan to look at more brilliant quasars.

But that’s not all Webb, and its scientists, will be doing.

The Webb telescope’s powerful abilities

The Webb telescope — a scientific collaboration between NASA, the ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency — is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented insights about the early universe. But it’s also peering at intriguing planets in our galaxy, and even the planets in our solar system.

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Here’s how Webb is achieving unparalleled things, and likely will for decades:

  • Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet across. That’s over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. As described above, the telescope is peering at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

    “We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that ever formed,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.

  • Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely views light that’s visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it views light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see far more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths(opens in a new tab) than visible light, so the light waves more efficiently slip through cosmic clouds; the light doesn’t as often collide with and get scattered by these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared eyesight can penetrate places Hubble can’t.

    “It lifts the veil,” said Creighton.

  • Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carries specialized equipment called spectrometers(opens in a new tab) that will revolutionize our understanding of these far-off worlds. The instruments can decipher what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — be it gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find.

    “We might learn things we never thought about,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(opens in a new tab), told Mashable in 2021.

    Already, astronomers have successfully found intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and the observatory has started looking at one of the most anticipated places in the cosmos: the rocky, Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.

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