James Webb Space Telescope helps researchers uncover early galaxies in ‘new chapter in astronomy’

In what researchers at the James Webb Space Telescope have called “a new chapter in astronomy,” the observatory has helped detect two early galaxies, one of which may contain the light of the most distant stars ever observed.

In a tweet, the international team said the unexpectedly bright galaxies could fundamentally change what is previously known about stars.

The research – two papers – were published last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

With only four days of analysis, the researchers found the galaxies in images from the GRism Lens-Amplified Survey from Space (GLASS) Early Release Science (ERS) program.

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The scientists found that the galaxies existed between about 450 and 350 million years after the big bang, although future spectroscopic measurements with Webb will help confirm these preliminary findings.

Two of the most distant galaxies ever observed are captured in these Webb Space Telescope images of the outer regions of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744.  The galaxies are not inside the cluster, but behind it several billion light-years away.  (1) The labeled galaxy existed only 450 million years after the Big Bang.  (2) The labeled galaxy existed 350 million years after the Big Bang.  Both are actually observed close to the time of the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago.  These galaxies are small compared to our Milky Way, being only a few percent of its size, even having been labeled an unexpectedly elongated galaxy (1).

Two of the most distant galaxies ever observed are captured in these Webb Space Telescope images of the outer regions of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744. The galaxies are not inside the cluster, but behind it several billion light-years away. (1) The labeled galaxy existed only 450 million years after the Big Bang. (2) The labeled galaxy existed 350 million years after the Big Bang. Both are actually observed close to the time of the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago. These galaxies are small compared to our Milky Way, being only a few percent of its size, even having been labeled an unexpectedly elongated galaxy (1).
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI))

“With Webb, we were amazed to see the most distant starlight anyone had ever seen,” Rohan Naidu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told NASA. After a few days.” The more distant Glass galaxy – called GLASS-z12 – is believed to date back 350 million years after the Big Bang.

Naidu led one paper and Marco Castellano of the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, Italy, led the other.

The previous record holder is the galaxy GN-z11, which existed 400 million years after the big bang.

These two galaxies are believed to have existed 350 & 450 million years after the Big Bang (from left to right).  Unlike our Milky Way, these first galaxies are smaller and denser, with spherical or disc shapes rather than grand spirals.

These two galaxies are believed to have existed 350 & 450 million years after the Big Bang (from left to right). Unlike our Milky Way, these first galaxies are smaller and denser, with spherical or disc shapes rather than grand spirals.
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI))

“While the distances to these early sources still need to be confirmed with spectroscopy, their extreme luminosity is a real puzzle, challenging our understanding of galaxy formation,” said Pascal Oesch from the University of Geneva.

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The observations reportedly push astronomers toward a consensus that an unusual number of galaxies in the early universe were brighter than expected, making it easier for telescopes to find even more early galaxies.

With only four days of analysis, the researchers found two exceptionally bright galaxies in the GLASS-JWST images.

With only four days of analysis, the researchers found two exceptionally bright galaxies in the GLASS-JWST images.
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI))

“We have discovered something that is incredibly fascinating,” said Garth Illingworth of the University. These galaxies must have started coming together just 100 million years after the Big Bang. The era will end so soon.” Naidu and members of the Osh team, in Santa Cruz, California. “The early universe may have been just one-hundredth of its current age. That’s a fraction of the time in the evolved universe, 13.8 billion years old.”

Illingworth also told the agency that the galaxies could have been very massive — with very low-mass stars — or very low-mass, with Population III stars.

NASA said, as it has long been believed, these would be the first stars ever to be born, composed only of primordial hydrogen and helium.

These two unexpectedly bright galaxies could fundamentally change what we know about the first stars.

These two unexpectedly bright galaxies could fundamentally change what we know about the first stars.
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI))

No such extremely hot, primordial star is observed in the local universe.

The galaxies are also unusually small and compact, with spherical or disc shapes rather than grand spirals.

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The discovery of the compact disc at such an early time was only possible because of Webb’s clearer images in infrared light.

It said follow-up observations would confirm the distances to the galaxies – based on measuring their infrared colors – and spectroscopic measurements would provide independent verification.

“These observations blow your mind. It’s a new chapter in astronomy. It’s like an archaeological dig, and all of a sudden you find a lost city or something you didn’t know about. It’s just startling giver,” said Paola Santini, an author on the paper led by Castellano.

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