At the center of almost every galaxy, there is a supermassive black hole and when it is active it can produce powerful jets of material that often hit surrounding gas clouds. Now, thanks to a serendipitous gravitational trick, astronomers have seen this event in detail in the early universe.
The light of galaxy MG J0414+0534 comes to us from when the universe was not even 3 billion years old. The path between us and this object is “obstructed” by another galaxy, but instead of that being a drawback, it's actually an advantage. The foreground galaxy warps space-time and this creates a gravitational lens, magnifying MG J0414+0534.
“This distortion works as a ‘natural telescope’ to enable a detailed view of distant objects,” explained co-author Takeo Minezaki, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, in a statement.
Reporting in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers saw the clouds around MG J0414+0534 moving at over 600 kilometers per hour (370 miles), a clear indication that the gas clouds were being impacted. The team used the sophisticated Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to highlight the emissions from dust, ionized gas, and carbon monoxide in the gas cloud of the distant galaxy. In doing so, they obtained the first resolved image of the disturbed gas clouds from a galaxy 11 billion light-years away.
“Combining this cosmic telescope and ALMA’s high-resolution observations, we obtained exceptionally sharp vision, that is 9,000 times better than human eyesight,” said co-author Kouichiro Nakanishi, a project associate professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI.
“With this extremely high resolution, we were able to obtain the distribution and motion of gaseous clouds around jets ejected from a supermassive black hole.”
What we are witnessing here is a crucial process in galaxy evolution. The jets hitting clouds can have long-term effects, like stifled star-formation. In this case, we are not only looking at such an interaction in the early universe but also at a very early phase in jet production. They might be only several tens of thousands of years old; baby jets in cosmic terms.
“MG J0414+0534 is an excellent example because of the youth of the jets,” summarizes Kaiki Inoue, a professor at Kindai University, Japan, and the lead author of the study. “We found telltale evidence of significant interaction between jets and gaseous clouds even in the very early evolutionary phase of jets. I think that our discovery will pave the way for a better understanding of the evolutionary process of galaxies in the early universe.”