NASA’s Webb Telescope Will Look Back in Time, Use Quasars to Unlock the Secrets of the Early Universe

Galaxy With Brilliant Quasar

This is an artist’s concept of a galaxy with a brilliant quasar at its center. A quasar is a very bright, distant and active supermassive black hole that is millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. Among the brightest objects in the universe, a quasar’s light outshines that of all the stars in its host galaxy combined. Quasars feed on infalling matter and unleash torrents of winds and radiation, shaping the galaxies in which they reside. Using the unique capabilities of Webb, scientists will study six of the most distant and luminous quasars in the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted (STScI)

Looking back in time, Webb will see quasars as they appeared billions of years ago

Outshining all the stars in their host galaxies combined, quasars are among the brightest objects in the universe. These brilliant, distant and active supermassive black holes shape the galaxies in which they reside. Shortly after its launch, scientists will use Webb to study six of the most far-flung and luminous quasars, along with their host galaxies, in the very young universe. They will examine what part quasars play in galaxy evolution during these early times. The team will also use the quasars to study the gas in the space between galaxies in the infant universe. Only with Webb’s extreme sensitivity to low levels of light and its superb angular resolution will this be possible.

Quasars are very bright, distant and active supermassive black holes that are millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. Typically located at the centers of galaxies, they feed on infalling matter and unleash fantastic torrents of radiation. Among the brightest objects in the universe, a quasar’s light outshines that of all the stars in its host galaxy combined, and its jets and winds shape the galaxy in which it resides.

Shortly after its launch later this year, a team of scientists will train NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on six of the most distant and luminous quasars. They will study the properties of these quasars and their host galaxies, and how they are interconnected during the first stages of galaxy evolution in the very early universe. The team will also use the quasars to examine the gas in the space between galaxies, particularly during the period of cosmic reionization, which ended when the universe was very young. They will accomplish this using Webb’s extreme sensitivity to low levels of light and its superb angular resolution.

Cosmic Reionization Infographic Crop

(Click image to see full infographic.) More than 13 billion years ago, during the Era of Reionization, the universe was a very different place. The gas between galaxies was largely opaque to energetic light, making it difficult to observe young galaxies. What allowed the universe to become completely ionized, or transparent, eventually leading to the “clear” conditions detected in much of the universe today? The James Webb Space Telescope will peer deep into space to gather more information about objects that existed during the Era of Reionization to help us understand this major transition in the history of the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Kang (STScI)

Webb: Visiting the Young Universe

As Webb peers deep into the universe, it will actually look back in time. Light from these distant quasars began its journey to Webb when the universe was very young and took billions of years to arrive. We will see things as they were long ago, not as they are today.

“All these quasars we are studying existed very early, when the universe was less than 800 million years old, or less than 6 percent of its current age. So these observations give us the opportunity to study galaxy evolution and supermassive black hole formation and evolution at these very early times,” explained team member Santiago Arribas, a research professor at the Department of Astrophysics of the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain. Arribas is also a member of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) Instrument Science Team.

What is Cosmological Redshift Crop

(Click image to see full infographic.) The universe is expanding, and that expansion stretches light traveling through space in a phenomenon known as cosmological redshift. The greater the redshift, the greater the distance the light has traveled. As a result, telescopes with infrared detectors are needed to see light from the first, most distant galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, AND L. Hustak (STSci)

The light from these very distant objects has been stretched by the expansion of space. This is known as cosmological redshift. The farther the light has to travel, the more it is redshifted. In fact, the visible light emitted at the early universe is stretched so dramatically that it is shifted out into the infrared when it arrives to us. With its suite of infrared-tuned instruments, Webb is uniquely suited to studying this kind of light.

Studying Quasars, Their Host Galaxies and Environments, and Their Powerful Outflows

The quasars the team will study are not only among the most distant in the universe, but also among the brightest. These quasars typically have the highest black hole masses, and they also have the highest accretion rates — the rates at which material falls into the black holes.

“We’re interested in observing the most luminous quasars because the very high amount of energy that they’re generating down at their cores should lead to the largest impact on the host galaxy by the mechanisms such as quasar outflow and heating,” said Chris Willott, a research scientist at the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Victoria, British Columbia. Willott is also the Canadian Space Agency’s Webb project scientist. “We want to observe these quasars at the moment when they’re having the largest impact on their host galaxies.”

An enormous amount of energy is liberated when matter is accreted by the supermassive black hole. This energy heats and pushes the surrounding gas outward, generating strong outflows that tear across interstellar space like a tsunami, wreaking havoc on the host galaxy.


Watch as the jets and winds from a supermassive black hole affect its host galaxy—and the space hundreds of thousands of light-years away over millions of years. Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak (STScI)

Outflows play an important role in galaxy evolution. Gas fuels the formation of stars, so when gas is removed due to outflows, the star-formation rate decreases. In some cases, outflows are so powerful and expel such large amounts of gas that they can completely halt star formation within the host galaxy. Scientists also think that outflows are the main mechanism by which gas, dust and elements are redistributed over large distances within the galaxy or can even be expelled into the space between galaxies – the intergalactic medium. This may provoke fundamental changes in the properties of both the host galaxy and the intergalactic medium.

Examining Properties of Intergalactic Space During the Era of Reionization

More than 13 billion years ago, when the universe was very young, the view was far from clear. Neutral gas between galaxies made the universe opaque to some types of light. Over hundreds of millions of years, the neutral gas in the intergalactic medium became charged or ionized, making it transparent to ultraviolet light. This period is called the Era of Reionization. But what led to the reionization that created the “clear” conditions detected in much of the universe today? Webb will peer deep into space to gather more information about this major transition in the history of the universe. The observations will help us understand the Era of Reionization, which is one of the key frontiers in astrophysics.

The team will use quasars as background light sources to study the gas between us and the quasar. That gas absorbs the quasar’s light at specific wavelengths. Through a technique called imaging spectroscopy, they will look for absorption lines in the intervening gas. The brighter the quasar is, the stronger those absorption line features will be in the spectrum. By determining whether the gas is neutral or ionized, scientists will learn how neutral the universe is and how much of this reionization process has occurred at that particular point in time.


The James Webb Space Telescope will use an innovative instrument called an integral field unit (IFU) to capture images and spectra at the same time. This video gives a basic overview of how the IFU works. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and L. Hustak (STScI)

“If you want to study the universe, you need very bright background sources. A quasar is the perfect object in the distant universe, because it’s luminous enough that we can see it very well,” said team member Camilla Pacifici, who is affiliated with the Canadian Space Agency but works as an instrument scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We want to study the early universe because the universe evolves, and we want to know how it got started.”

The team will analyze the light coming from the quasars with NIRSpec to look for what astronomers call “metals,” which are elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These elements were formed in the first stars and the first galaxies and expelled by outflows. The gas moves out of the galaxies it was originally in and into the intergalactic medium. The team plans to measure the generation of these first “metals,” as well as the way they’re being pushed out into the intergalactic medium by these early outflows.

The Power of Webb

Webb is an extremely sensitive telescope able to detect very low levels of light. This is important, because even though the quasars are intrinsically very bright, the ones this team is going to observe are among the most distant objects in the universe. In fact, they are so distant that the signals Webb will receive are very, very low. Only with Webb’s exquisite sensitivity can this science be accomplished. Webb also provides excellent angular resolution, making it possible to disentangle the light of the quasar from its host galaxy.

The quasar programs described here are Guaranteed Time Observations involving the spectroscopic capabilities of NIRSpec.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory when it launches in 2021. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe 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.

9 Comments on "NASA’s Webb Telescope Will Look Back in Time, Use Quasars to Unlock the Secrets of the Early Universe"

  1. The only thing that Webb will look back is all the CGI and smoke and mirrors that the liars at NASA, China and all other fake space agencies gave us. They all have Black Holes in their brains.

  2. How does this knowledge of the distant past help us humans right now, right here on Earth? All the resources expended on this scientific endeavors should be directed towards solving issues plaquing this planet and its inhabitants.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 25, 2021 at 2:50 pm | Reply

      How did CERNs work on accelerators help us now? They invented the web.

      The instruments and software that are developed for large telescopes goes into large image uses such as fMRIs for hospital patients – we benefit immensely!

  3. … this dark thing has been illuminated as a mayor issue for a very long time. However, there was no resolution to it. It might be this time, though…

  4. Developed 25 years ago for launch 14 years ago at a half billion dollar cost, now up to 10 billion dollars. Thank goodness our space / military folks have been getting paid all that time.

    Yes, a great leap forward for telescopes free of the atmosphere, but to pay for this delay has eaten funds that would have kept in repair the Arecibo “radio telescope”, which is really the world’s most powerful radar, sending out 20 terawatts, as in SETI.

    But faithfully, every week, we get some article about the unique Webb, if it ever gets up there. I guess that costs money too.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 25, 2021 at 2:56 pm | Reply

      Every new telescope generation leader such as Webb becomes “too large to fail”. It is worth the money, it is the wait that bugs me.

      Arecibo was mostly replaceable with China’s FAST. (Though the pulsar timing gravitational wave search takes a hit, I think.)

  5. Torbjörn Larsson | June 25, 2021 at 2:47 pm | Reply

    Recent context on Webb targets:

    “Astronomers have worked out when the first stars began shining.

    They say that this period, known as the “cosmic dawn,” occurred between 250 to 350 million years after the Big Bang.

    The results indicate that the first galaxies will be bright enough to be seen by Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to be launched later this year.

    The study is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    Discovering when the cosmic dawn began has been the life’s work of Prof Richard Ellis, from University College London, UK.

    He told BBC News: “The Holy Grail has been to look back far enough that you would be able to see the very first generation of stars and galaxies. And now we have the first convincing evidence of when the Universe was first bathed in starlight.””

    [ https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57515422 ]

  6. If it ever gets launched – bearing in mind its history, that’s no small if.

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