James Webb telescope peers through dust for unprecedented image of a black hole

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 material 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 from Stephan’s Quintet, one of the first five Webb images to full color published by NASA and partner agencies on July 12. The image shows five apparently closely spaced galaxies, 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 before observed, and which correspond to atomic hydrogen, molecular hydrogen or two bonded hydrogen atoms, and electrically charged iron ions in the gas surrounding the black hole.

An illustration of the chemical composition and structure of a supermassive black hole made by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Spectrometer instrument


Taken together, NIRSpec’s analysis of these elements allowed scientists to map the structure of the gas flowing into the black hole to be consumed, as well as the outflows, the gas expelled by powerful jets of radiation generated by the intense compression 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, and one that scientists will use to study not only black holes, but also stars, galaxies, and planets. A spectrum of the exoplanet Wasp-96b was taken with NIRSpec as another of the first five Webb images released to the 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 of development, $10 billion, and months of implementation and calibration, Webb is now doing science almost constantly, so the pace of new discoveries and images is likely to be faster than previously thought. have seen so far.