James Webb telescope finds two of the oldest and most distant galaxies ever seen | James Webb space telescope

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope finds bright, early galaxies hitherto hidden from view, including one that may have formed just 350 million years after the Big Bang.

Astronomers said Thursday that if the results were verified, this newly discovered crowd of stars would beat the farthest galaxy identified by the Hubble Space Telescope — a record holder formed 400 million years after the universe was formed.

The Webb telescope, launched last December as Hubble’s successor, indicates that stars may have formed earlier than previously thought — perhaps within a few million years of the Big Bang.

Side-by-side images of distant galaxies, appearing as elliptical reddish blurs against the blackness of space
A close-up of two of the newly discovered galaxies. Photo: ESA, NASA, CSA, STScI/AFP/Getty Images

Webb’s latest discoveries were described in the Astrophysical Journal Letters by an international team led by Rohan Naidu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The article takes a closer look at two exceptionally bright galaxies, the first thought to have formed 350 million years after the Big Bang and the other 450 million years after.

Naidu said Webb would need more infrared observations before claiming a new record holder.

While some researchers report discovering galaxies 13.8 billion years ago that are even closer to the origin of the universe, those candidates have yet to be verified, scientists said at a NASA press conference. Some of these may be later galaxies mimicking earlier ones, they noted.

“This is a very dynamic time,” said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a co-author of the paper published Thursday. “There’s been a lot of tentative announcements from even earlier galaxies, and we’re still trying as a community to figure out which of those are likely to be real.”

Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles, a chief scientist for Webb’s early release science program, said the evidence presented so far is “as solid as it gets” for the galaxy believed to be 350 meters after the Big Bang to arise.

If the findings are verified and there are more early galaxies, Raidu and his team wrote that Webb “will prove highly successful in pushing the cosmic frontier to the edge of the Big Bang.”

Two starfields with locator boxes showing the galaxies, with enlarged pull-out images of the galaxies themselves in the center
A handout image from the Webb telescope’s near-infrared camera showing the distant galaxies in the outer regions of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744. Photo: ESA, NASA, CSA, STScI/AFP/Getty Images

“When and how the first galaxies formed remains one of the most intriguing questions,” the researchers wrote.

NASA’s Jane Rigby, a project scientist at Webb, noted that these galaxies were “hidden just below the limits of what Hubble could do.”

“They were there waiting for us,” she told reporters. “So that’s a happy surprise that there are a lot of these galaxies to study.”

The $10 billion observatory — the largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space — is in orbit around the sun one mile from Earth. Full science operations began in the summer, and NASA has since released a series of dazzling snapshots of the universe.

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