Newswise – Looking deep into space and time, two teams using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have studied the exceptionally luminous galaxy GN-z11, which existed when our 13.8 billion-year-old universe was only about 430 million years old .

Initially recognized Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, this galaxy – one of the youngest and most distant ever observed – is so bright that it’s a challenge for scientists to understand why. Now GN-z11 is revealing some of its secrets.

Powerful black hole is most distant ever found

A team studying GN-z11 with Webb found the first clear evidence that the galaxy hosts a central, supermassive black hole that is rapidly accreting matter. Their discovery makes this the most distant active supermassive black hole discovered to date.

“We found extremely dense gas that is often found near supermassive black holes that accumulate gas,” explained lead researcher Roberto Maiolino of the Cavendish Laboratory and the Kavli Institute of Cosmology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “These were the first clear signs that GN-z11 hosts a matter-devouring black hole.”

With the help of Webb, the team also found evidence of ionized chemical elements typically observed near accreting supermassive black holes. They also discovered a very strong wind emitted by the galaxy. Such high-speed winds are typically driven by processes associated with the violent accretion of supermassive black holes.

“Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) has discovered an extended component tracking the host galaxy and a central, compact source whose colors match those of an accretion disk around a black hole,” said researcher Hannah Übler, also from the Cavendish Laboratory and the Kavli Institute.

Taken together, this evidence shows that GN-z11 hosts a supermassive black hole of 2 million solar masses that is in a very active phase of matter consumption, which is why it is so luminous.

Pristine clump of gas in GN-z11’s halo fascinates researchers

A second team, also led by Maiolino, used Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph) to find a gaseous clump of helium in the halo around GN-z11.

“The fact that we don’t see anything other than helium suggests that this clump must be pretty pristine,” Maiolino said. “This is something that theory and simulations expected near particularly massive galaxies from these epochs – that there should still be pockets of pure gas in the halo that could collapse and form Population III star clusters.”

The discovery of the unprecedented Population III stars – the first generation of stars composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium – is one of the most important goals of modern astrophysics. These stars are thought to be very massive, very luminous and very hot. Their expected signature is the presence of ionized helium and the absence of chemical elements heavier than helium.

The formation of the first stars and galaxies marks a fundamental shift in cosmic history, in which the universe evolved from a dark and relatively simple state to the highly structured and complex environment we see today.

In future Webb observations, Maiolino, Übler and their team will explore GN-z11 in more depth and hope to strengthen the case for the Population III stars that may form in its halo.

The Research on the pristine clump of gas in the halo of GN-z11 has been accepted for publication by Astronomy & Astrophysics. The results of the GN-z11 black hole study were published in the journal Nature on January 17, 2024. The data was collected as part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES), a joint project between the NIRCam and NIRSpec teams.

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The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s leading space observatory. Webb solves mysteries in our solar system, looks beyond the distant worlds around other stars, and explores the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Media contacts:
Ann Jenkins/Christine Pulliam
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD.
[email protected] / [email protected]

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