The James Webb Space Telescope has given scientists an unprecedented view of a distant black hole, as it peers through layers of dust to trace the structure and composition of material orbiting the massive object.
Webb recently pointed to the near-infrared spectrometer, or NIRSpec instrument, at the supermassive black hole at the core of the upper galaxy seen in the Webb image of Stephan’s Quintet, one of the first five full-color Webb images released by NASA and partner agencies on July 12. . The image shows five seemingly closely spaced galaxies, although the fifth is actually much closer to Earth.
Spectrophotometers 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 a substance that emits or passes through light. Because NIRSpec is an infrared spectrophotometer, it was able to collect a spectrum of supermassive black despite being surrounded by 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 at wavelengths not previously observed, which correspond to atomic hydrogen, molecular hydrogen or two bonded 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 the gas flowing into the black hole to be consumed, as well as the outflows, gas emitted by powerful radiation jets generated by the black hole’s intense pressure. Gas and dust circulate 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. The spectrum of the exoplanet Wasp-96b was captured using NIRSpec as one of the first five web images released to the public.
NIRSpec was built by a consortium of European companies for the European Space Agency, 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. We’ve seen so far.