In what Researchers at the James Webb Space Telescope Calling 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 that unexpectedly bright galaxies could fundamentally alter what is known about the first stars.
The research, two papers, was published last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
With just four days of analysis, the researchers found the galaxies in images from the Grism Lens-Amplified Space Survey (GLASS) Early Release Science (ERS) program.
The scientists discovered that the galaxies existed between 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 surprised to find the most distant starlight anyone has ever seen, just days after Webb published his first data,” Rohan Naidu, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told NASA about the most distant CRYSTAL galaxy – named GLASS-z12 – which is believed to date to 350 million years after the Big Bang.
Naidu led one paper and Marco Castellano, from 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.
“While the distances of these early sources have yet to be confirmed with spectroscopy, their extreme brightnesses are a real puzzle and challenge our understanding of galaxy formation,” said Pascal Oesch of the University of Geneva.
The observations reportedly push 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 more early galaxies.
“We have achieved something that is incredibly fascinating. These galaxies should have started coming together perhaps only 100 million years after the Big Bang. No one expected the dark ages to have ended so soon,” said Garth Illingworth of the University. from California in Santa Cruz, a member of the Naidu and Oesch team. “The early universe would have been only a hundredth of its current age. That’s a time span in the evolving cosmos of 13.8 billion years.”
Illingworth also told the agency galaxies could have been very massive – with many 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 to be born, made up of only primordial hydrogen and helium.
Such extremely hot primordial stars are not seen in the local universe.
Galaxies are also unusually small and compact, with spherical or disk shapes rather than large spirals.
This early discovery of compact discs was only made possible by Webb’s much sharper images in infrared light.
He said that the follow-up observations will confirm the distances of the galaxies, which are based on the measurement of their infrared colors, and that the spectroscopy measurements will provide independent verification.
“These observations just 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 about. It’s just amazing,” Paola Santini, an author. of the newspaper led by Castellano, he said.