James Webb Space Telescope helps researchers discover first galaxies in ‘new chapter of astronomy’

In what researchers at the James Webb Space Telescope call a “brand new chapter in astronomy”, the observatory has helped locate two first galaxies, one of which may contain the most distant starlight ever seen.

In a tweet, the international team said galaxies of unexpected brightness could fundamentally alter what is known about the very first stars.

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

In just 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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Scientists have found that galaxies existed around 450 and 350 million years after the big bang, although future spectroscopic measurements with Webb will help confirm these early findings.

Two of the most distant galaxies seen to date 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 several billion light years further behind him.  The galaxy labeled (1) only existed 450 million years after the big bang.  The galaxy labeled (2) existed 350 million years after the big bang.  The two are seen very close in time to the Big Bang, which happened 13.8 billion years ago.  These galaxies are tiny compared to our Milky Way, being only a few percent of its size, even the surprisingly elongated galaxy labeled (1).

Two of the most distant galaxies seen to date 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 several billion light years further behind him. The galaxy labeled (1) only existed 450 million years after the big bang. The galaxy labeled (2) existed 350 million years after the big bang. The two are seen very close in time to the Big Bang, which happened 13.8 billion years ago. These galaxies are tiny compared to our Milky Way, being only a few percent of its size, even the surprisingly elongated galaxy labeled (1).
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI))

“With Webb, we were amazed to find the most distant starlight anyone had ever seen, just days after Webb released his first data,” Rohan Naidu, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Science, told NASA. Astrophysics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. the more distant GLASS galaxy – called GLASS-z12 – believed to date back 350 million years after the big bang.

Naidu led one article and Marco Castellano of the National Institute of 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 thought to have existed 350 and 450 million years after the big bang (from left to right).  Unlike our Milky Way, these early galaxies are small and compact, with spherical or disc shapes rather than large spirals.

These two galaxies are thought to have existed 350 and 450 million years after the big bang (from left to right). Unlike our Milky Way, these early galaxies are small and compact, with spherical or disc shapes rather than large spirals.
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI))

“While the distances of these early sources have yet to be confirmed by spectroscopy, their extreme luminosities are a real headache, challenging our understanding of galaxy formation,” said Pascal Oesch of the University of Geneva.

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The observations would have pushed astronomers toward a consensus that an unusual number of galaxies in the early universe were much brighter than expected, making it easier for the telescope to find even older galaxies.

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

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

“We’ve nailed something incredibly fascinating. These galaxies should have started coming together maybe only 100 million years after the Big Bang. No one expected the Dark Ages to end so soon. “said the University’s Garth Illingworth. from California to Santa Cruz, member of the Naidu and Oesch team. “The early universe would have been only one-hundredth of its current age. That’s a slice of time in the evolving cosmos 13.8 billion years old.”

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

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

These two galaxies of unexpected brightness could fundamentally change what we know about the very first stars.

These two galaxies of unexpected brightness could fundamentally change what we know about the very 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.

Galaxies are also exceptionally small and compact, with spherical or disc shapes rather than large spirals.

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This discovery of compact discs in such early times was only possible thanks to Webb’s much sharper images in infrared light.

He said follow-up observations will confirm the distances of galaxies – which are based on measuring their infrared colors – and spectroscopy measurements will provide independent verification.

“These sightings blow your mind. It’s a whole new chapter in astronomy. It’s like an archaeological dig, and suddenly you find a lost city or something you didn’t know about. It’s simply astounding,” Paola Santini, author of the journal run by Castellano, said.

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