The James Webb Space Telescope has given scientists an unprecedented view of a distant black hole, peering through layers of dust to trace the structure and composition of matter swirling around the massive object.
Webb recently pointed his near-infrared spectrometer, or NIRSpec instrument, at the supermassive black hole at the heart of the upper galaxy seen in Webb’s image of Stephan’s Quintet, one of the first five color Webb images released by NASA and partner agencies on July 12. The image shows five galaxies seemingly close together, although the fifth is actually much closer to Earth.
Spectrometers separate light into its component wavelengths, and since different elements absorb light at known wavelengths, the resulting spectrum allows scientists to determine the chemical composition of the material emitting or passing through the light. . And because NIRSpec is an infrared spectrometer, it was able to collect a spectrum of supermassive black despite being shrouded in stardust.
The result, as explained by the European Space Agency in an illustration and a series of twitter posts, is that Webb saw the supermassive black hole from wavelengths never seen before, and which correspond to atomic hydrogen, molecular hydrogen or two bound hydrogen atoms, and electrically charged iron ions in the gas surrounding the black hole.
Taken together, NIRSpec’s analysis of these elements allowed scientists to map the structure of gas flowing into the black hole to be consumed, as well as outflows, gas expelled by powerful jets of radiation generated by compression intensity of the black hole. gas and dust swirl around the black hole.
NIRSpec is a powerful tool for understanding the chemical elements and structures of distant objects, which scientists will use to study not only black holes, but also stars, galaxies and planets. A spectrum of exoplanet Wasp-96b was taken with NIRSpec as another of the first five Webb images made public.
NIRSpec was built by a collection of European companies for the European Space Agency, which is one of three partner agencies that built the Webb Telescope, which also includes NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. After more than 20 years in development, $10 billion, and months of implementation and benchmarking, Webb is now doing science almost constantly, so the pace of new discoveries and images is likely to be faster. than previously thought.
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