In what James Webb Space Telescope researchers call a “whole new chapter in astronomy,” the observatory has helped locate two early galaxies, one of which may contain the most distant starlight ever seen.
In a tweet, the international team said the unexpectedly bright galaxies could fundamentally change what is known about the very first stars.
The research – two papers – was published last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
With just four days of analysis, researchers found the galaxies in the 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 about 450 and 350 million years after the Big Bang, although future spectroscopic measurements with Webb will help confirm these initial findings.
“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 Astrophysics and Massachusetts Institute of Technology told NASA. . the more distant GLASS galaxy — called GLASS-z12 — believed to date back 350 million years after the Big Bang.
Naidu led one paper 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.
“While the distances of these early sources have yet to be confirmed by spectroscopy, their extreme brightness is a real puzzle, challenging our understanding of how galaxies form,” said Pascal Oesch of the University of Geneva.
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The observations are said to be driving astronomers to 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 more early galaxies.
“We’ve discovered something that’s incredibly fascinating. These galaxies should have started converging maybe just 100 million years after the Big Bang. No one expected the Dark Ages to end so early,” says Garth Illingworth of the university. of California in Santa Cruz, a member of Naidu and Oesch’s team. “The primordial universe would have been only one-hundredth of its present age. It is a fraction of the time in the 13.8 billion-year-old evolving cosmos.”
Illingworth also told the agency that the galaxies could be very massive — with many low-mass stars — or much less massive, with Population III stars.
NASA said, as it has long been theorized, that these would be the first stars ever born, consisting only of primordial hydrogen and helium.
Such extremely hot primordial stars cannot be seen in the local universe.
The galaxies are also unusually small and compact, with spherical or disc shapes rather than large spirals.
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This discovery of compact disks at such an early time was only possible thanks to Webb’s much sharper images in infrared light.
It said follow-up observations will confirm the galaxies’ distances – which are based on measuring their infrared colors – and that spectroscopy measurements will provide independent verification.
“These observations make your head explode. This is 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 before. It’s just amazing,” Paola Santini, an author of the Castellano-led newspaper, said.