James Webb Space Telescope sees what may be the most distant galaxy ever found

The James Webb Space Telescope has discovered a remote, reddish galaxy that lit up just 350 million years after the birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. Big Bang, researchers said Thursday.

“These observations make your head explode,” Paola Santini, a co-author of a paper describing the discovery in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in a statement. “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 about. It’s just mind-blowing.”

What appears to be the most distant galaxy yet detected appears as a small red dot in this James Webb Space Telescope image. Data analysis indicates that the galaxy shone just 350 million years after the Big Bang birth of the cosmos, some 50 million years earlier than the previous record holder.

NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

No one knows when the first stars turned on after the so-called “dark ages” ended and light first began to travel freely through the universe. But “I think anything older than 100 million years would just be really weird,” Garth Illingworth, a Webb astronomer and professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, told reporters.

“We mainly thought it would probably take a few hundred million years for the very first things to form,” he said. “But these galaxies are potentially so massive that it could push us back earlier than the 200. This is a really great open question — when did the first stars form? And so these galaxies, I think, will be a trailblazer towards that.”

The galaxies in question are GLASS-z12, shining 350 million years after the Big Bang, and another dating back 450 million years, discovered after just four days of analysis as part of the Grism Lens-Amplified Survey from Space, or GLASS, observing program.

As the name implies, the extremely distant galaxies were found in light that was gravitationally magnified by the mass of a closer cluster of galaxies. The two observations contrast with the previous Hubble record holder, the galaxy GN-z11, which dates to about 400 million years ago.

The age of the newly discovered galaxies has not yet been fully confirmed – requiring additional spectroscopic analysis – but astronomers said the observations show clear signs of numerous potentially older galaxies, which would bring star formation even closer to the Big Bang.

A second galaxy found by Webb dates to 450 million years after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Larger galaxies in the image are members of a closer galaxy cluster. Light from the much more distant galaxies was magnified or gravitationally lensed by the sheer mass of the intermediate cluster.

NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); image processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

“These galaxies should have started converging perhaps only 100 million years after the Big Bang,” Illingworth said in a NASA statement. “Nobody expected the Dark Ages to have ended so early. 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.”

Tommaso Treu, lead researcher on the GLASS project and a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, said the research was intended “as a way for the astronomical community to quickly see what surprises the universe has prepared for us.”

“And the universe and JWST have not disappointed us,” he said. “Once we started collecting data, we found that there are many more bright distant galaxies than we expected. Somehow, the universe has managed to form galaxies faster and earlier than we thought.

“Only a few 100 million years after the Big Bang, there are a lot of galaxies. JWST has opened up a new frontier, allowing us to better understand how it all started. And we’re just starting to explore it.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space observatory ever launched, equipped with a segmented 21.3-foot-wide mirror and four sensitive cameras and spectroscopic detectors that operate at less than 50 degrees above absolute zero.

The ultra-low temperature is necessary to enable the telescope catch weak light which has been stretched into the infrared region of the spectrum by the expansion of space itself over the lifetime of the cosmos.

Launched on Christmas Day last year, JWST is in its fifth month of scientific operations.

“JWST has been a gift that has taken months to unwrap and the result is that almost across the board the observatory is more powerful than our pre-launch expectations,” said Jane Rigby, Webb’s project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. .

“Images are sharper, aiming and guidance are more stable, with darker skies, darker backgrounds and greater, better sensitivity.” The initial results from the GLASS project, she added, “are just some of the deluge of new discoveries pouring in. Just as we hoped,”

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