Using NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers have identified a string-like configuration of 10 galaxies that originated a mere 830 million years after the big bang.
The James Webb Space Telescope continues to reveal the secrets of the universe. In its latest exploration of the cosmos, Webb observed the first strands of the cosmic web. The cosmos isn’t a random scattering of galaxies. These celestial bodies cluster together and form expansive, interconnected filamentary structures with vast desolate voids in between, creating a “cosmic web.” This nebulous structure began faintly and has gradually become more distinct as gravity pulls matter together over time.
Webb observes the first strands of the cosmic web
Scientists leveraging NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have detected a string of 10 galaxies that came into existence just 830 million years following the big bang. Anchored by a luminous quasar, a galaxy with an active supermassive black hole at its core, this 3 million light-year-long structure is believed to eventually evolve into a massive cluster of galaxies, similar to the known Coma Cluster in the nearby universe.
“I was taken aback by the length and narrowness of this filament,” said team member Xiaohui Fan from the University of Arizona in Tucson. “I anticipated some discovery, but the pronounced thinness of such an extended structure was surprising.”
“This represents one of the earliest filamentary structures associated with a distant quasar that people have ever discovered,” added Feige Wang, the University of Arizona’s principal investigator of the project.
The ASPIRE Project’s Vision
This revelation comes from the ASPIRE project (A SPectroscopic survey of biased halos In the Reionization Era), aiming to investigate the cosmic environments of the earliest black holes. In total, the program will scrutinize 25 quasars that existed within the first billion years after the big bang, a period referred to as the Epoch of Reionization.
“The past two decades of cosmology research have fostered a robust understanding of the cosmic web’s formation and evolution. ASPIRE’s mission is to comprehend the integration of the earliest massive black holes into our current narrative of cosmic structure formation,” explained team member Joseph Hennawi from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Investigating Quasars and Black Holes
Another segment of the study explores the properties of eight quasars from the young universe. The team confirmed that their central black holes, formed less than a billion years post-big bang, range in mass from 600 million to 2 billion times that of our sun. The quest for evidence explaining how these black holes could grow so large so quickly continues.
“To create these supermassive black holes in such a brief span, two conditions must be met. First, growth must commence from a massive ‘seed’ black hole. Second, even if this seed starts with a mass equivalent to a thousand Suns, it still needs to accumulate a million times more matter at the maximum possible rate throughout its lifetime,” explained Wang.
“These novel observations provide crucial clues about black hole assembly. We’ve learned that these black holes are located in massive young galaxies supplying the fuel for their growth,” stated Jinyi Yang from the University of Arizona, who leads the black hole study with ASPIRE.
Exploring Star Formation Regulation
Webb also provided the strongest evidence yet about how early supermassive black holes could potentially influence star formation in their galaxies. While supermassive black holes accumulate matter, they can also drive tremendous outflows of material. These winds can extend far beyond the black hole itself, on a galactic scale, and can significantly impact the formation of stars.
“Powerful winds from black holes can inhibit star formation in the host galaxy. While such winds have been observed in the nearby universe, they’ve never been directly observed during the Epoch of Reionization,” said Yang. “The wind’s scale is related to the quasar’s structure. In the Webb observations, we’re witnessing that such winds existed in the early universe.”
The findings were published in two papers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on June 29.
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