JWST identifies the earliest strands of a quasar’s web

Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have peered back millions of years to discover a thread-like arrangement of 10 galaxies from just 830 million years after the Big Bang.

This fine filament allows scientists greater understanding of how early galaxies clusters formed.

“I was surprised by how long and how narrow this filament is,” said one of the researchers, Professor Xiaohui Fan from the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“I expected to find something, but I didn’t expect such a long, distinctly thin structure.”

Two papers on the topic have been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The filament is anchored together by a quasar, a large galaxy with a ‘bright’ supermassive black hole at its core.

The team believes this thin filament will one day evolve into a massive galaxy cluster. More developed galaxy clusters – like the Coma Cluster – have more than 1,000 galaxies.

You can see the JWST image below the galaxies marked with eight circles. Two of the circles contain more than one galaxy. The researchers believe the filament is a staggering 3 million light years long. 

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Deep galaxy field from Webb’s NIRCam shows an arrangement of 10 distant galaxies. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Feige Wang (University of Arizona), and Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

“This is one of the earliest filamentary structures that people have ever found associated with a distant quasar,” said the first author of one of the papers, University of Arizona astrophysicist Dr Feige Wang.

These are the first results from a JWST program called A SPectroscopic survey of biased halos In the Reionization Era (ASPIRE).

The idea is to peer far back into the Universe using JWST to highlight 25 quasars from the first billion years after the Big Bang. This is known as the Epoch of Reionisiation, a time when galaxies and quasars had begun to form in the early Universe, but because it was so long ago, it can be hard to see. 

“The last two decades of cosmology research have given us a robust understanding of how the cosmic web forms and evolves,” said University of California, Santa Barbara astrophysicist Professor Joseph Hennawi.

“ASPIRE aims to understand how to incorporate the emergence of the earliest massive black holes into our current story of the formation of cosmic structure.”

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