The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted a distant, reddish galaxy glowing just 350 million years after the cosmos was born 13.8 billion years ago, surprising astronomers struggling to understand how stars and galaxies could have formed so quickly in the aftermath of the Big Bang, researchers said Thursday.
“These observations blow your mind,” Paola Santini, co-author of an article describing the discovery in Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in a statement. “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 just amazing.”
No one yet knows when the first stars lit up after the end of the so-called “dark age” and light began to travel freely through the universe. But “I think anything older than 100 million years would be really weird,” Garth Illingworth, astronomer Webb and a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told reporters.
“We mostly thought that a few hundred million years would probably be where the very first things formed,” he said. “But these galaxies are potentially so massive that they could push us back sooner than these two hundred. It’s really a big open question – when did the first stars form? And so these galaxies, I think, will be a scout for 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 suggests, extremely distant galaxies were found in the light gravitationally magnified by the mass of a closer galaxy cluster. Both observations overlap Hubble’s previous record holder, galaxy GN-z11, which is around 400 million years old.
The age of the newly discovered galaxies is not yet fully confirmed – further spectroscopic analysis is needed for this – but astronomers said observations show clear signs of many potentially older galaxies, which would push back the formation of stars even closer to the Big Bang.
“These galaxies should have started coming together maybe just 100 million years after the Big Bang,” Illingworth said in a NASA statement. “No one expected the Dark Ages to end so soon. The early universe would have been only one-hundredth of its present age. 13.8 billion years old.”
Tommaso Treu, principal investigator of the GLASS project and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the survey was meant “to be a way for the astronomy community to get a quick glimpse of the surprises the universe had for us. prepared.”
“And the universe and JWST haven’t let us down,” he said. “As soon as we started taking data, we discovered that there were many more bright distant galaxies than we expected. Somehow the universe managed to form galaxies faster and earlier than we thought.
“Just some 100 million years after the Big Bang, there are a lot of galaxies. JWST opened a new frontier, bringing us closer to understanding how it all began. And we’ve only just begun to explore it.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space observatory ever launched, equipped with a 21.3-foot-wide segmented mirror and four sensitive cameras and spectroscopic detectors operating at less than 50 degrees above absolute zero .
The ultra-low temperature is necessary to allow the telescope to catch the dim 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 unfold and the result has been that almost in every way the observatory is more powerful than our pre-launch expectations,” said Webb Operations project scientist Jane Rigby. at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“Images are sharper, pointing and guidance are more stable, with darker skies, darker backgrounds, and greater and better sensitivity.” The initial results from the GLASS project, she added, “are just part of the flood of new findings that are pouring in. Just as we hoped,”
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