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UA black-hole researchers await Christmas Day launch of NASA telescope

When the James Webb Space Telescope finally gets launched into position and points toward the cosmos this month, University of Arizona researchers will begin investigating the brightest beacons in the universe.

They will also check out the surrounding neighborhoods.

Known as quasars, these behemoths are surrounded by equally distant galaxies. Gas and dust orbit these supermassive black holes and continuously rub together to create heat and light, which can be detected by telescopes.

Astronomers theorize that it can take billions of years for supermassive black holes and their accompanying galaxies to form. How is it possible that these quasars became so gigantic, with billions of solar masses, in the first 700 million years of the universe? Once you can see past their glare, what do their accompanying galaxies look like? And what do their "neighborhoods" look like?

Xiaohui Fanwill be searching for answers alongside co-principal researchers Jinyi Yang, the Peter A. Strittmatter  Postdoctoral Fellow at Steward, and Eduardo Bañados, a staff astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

The international team of astronomers will pursue these questions with observations taken by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated for launch on Dec. 25. 

The team will focus specifically on the three most distant quasars currently known. All three were discovered since 2018 by groups including UA astronomers, and each is located more than 13 billion light-years away.

"These distant quasars are really valuable objects," Fan said. "We structured this program to learn everything we could think of, so our team and the greater astronomical community can fully explore these quasars."

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The James Webb Space Telescope, also known simply as Webb, will offer new views of the distant quasars in high-resolution infrared light. With that data, Fan's team hopes to refine calculations of the quasars' masses, detail the stars in their host galaxies and survey the galaxies in their neighborhoods. The research may influence how we view the early universe.

Webb's sensitivity to infrared light – including mid-infrared wavelengths that can only be captured from space – will allow the team to observe these quasars, whose light has traveled for 13 billion years and had its wavelengths stretched from ultraviolet and visible light to infrared light.

To observe the quasars, Fan, Yang and Bañados will use almost every available instrument on Webb, including a camera developed under the leadership of a UA astronomer Marcia Rieke. 

First, they will refine the measurements of the mass of each supermassive black hole, how gasses move through in relation to them to see if these black holes create winds that heat surrounding galaxies.

"Webb will help us make the next quantum leap in understanding these objects," Fan said.

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University of Arizona

UA researchers are set to expand "by quantum leap" the understanding of behemoth black holes, known as quasars.