Astronomers have captured some of the most detailed images ever seen of galaxies in deep space.
They are in much higher definition than normal and reveal the inner workings of galaxies in unprecedented detail.
Many of the images could shed light on the role of black holes in the formation of stars and planets.
The researchers say the images will transform our understanding of how galaxies evolve.
The images are of the radio waves emitted by the galaxies.
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Researchers often study radio waves from astronomical objects rather than the visible light they emit because it allows them to see things that would otherwise be blocked by Earth’s atmosphere or dust and gas in distant galaxies.
Many regions of space that are dark to our eyes actually burn brightly in the radio waves they emit.
This allows astronomers to observe the regions where stars form or the heart of galaxies.
What is new is that the team has dramatically improved the resolution of radio images by connecting more than 70,000 small antennas spread over nine European counties.
Combining radio signals from so many antennas is not an easy process.
The team has spent six years developing a completely new way of collecting the signal from each antenna, digitizing it, transporting it to a central processor, and then combining all the data into images that are not only of enormous scientific interest but also of great beauty.
The achievement is a technical feat led by Leah Morabito of Durham University, UK.
“Analyzing the data for so long and then finally getting those images and being the first person to see what it looks like, it’s just amazing,” he told BBC News.
The image at the top of the page was made by a member of Morabito’s team.
It shows a galaxy that is barely visible, set amidst jets of orange material, shot from both sides, each much larger than the galaxy itself.
The jets are caused by a supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy, an object with such strong gravity that not even light can escape.
The sleep cycle
It normally sucks up material, but the inward pull also creates forces around the black hole that result in the material being ejected very far out into space.
These jets have been observed before, but astronomers have obtained new scientific information from the dark bands in the jet on the right that had not been seen before.
These, astronomers believe, represent periods of relative inactivity by the black hole, when it spits out less material.
Thus, the image gives researchers an idea of the black hole’s “sleep cycle.”
The image above shows two galaxies colliding.
The bright spot on the left is caused by exploding stars – creating what is effectively a galactic wind – blowing dust and gas away from it.
The light from the galaxy shown directly above originated when the Universe was only 2.6 billion years old.
Above and below are jets of material spewing from the inner black hole .
Normally, these first galaxies cannot be studied in detail.
But now, for the first time, astronomers have seen the structure of one of them at radio frequencies, providing critical scientific information on how the black hole interacts with its environment.
The images reveal that galaxies are much more than just a collection of stars.
They are dynamic factories for the production of the sun and planets, powered by black holes, according to Neal Jackson of the University of Manchester.
“Even seasoned astronomers say ‘wow!’ when they see these images, “he says.
“It has become very clear that, to understand the evolution of galaxies, we need to understand the black hole right in the center, because it seems to have a fairly fundamental influence on how galaxies evolve and that is what these images allow us to do.” says Jackson.
Morabito says images like these are helping astronomers learn how these processes that created stars and planets, including our own Solar System, actually work.
“We are really beginning to understand how galaxies have evolved. And black holes are a big part of that because their jets can carry the fuel for star formation. And as they push outward, they can alter galaxies. They can even disrupt them. trigger star formation or turn them off and make less of it happen, “adds Jackson.
Millions of galaxies
The first results have led to the publication of nine scientific articles on the dynamics of black holes in galaxies.
But this is just the beginning for the team. They plan to scan millions of galaxies in the next few years.
“I think there are definitely some surprises in store for us. Every time you start doing something new in astronomy, you always discover things you never expected,” says Morabito.