Space is so hot right now. The Artemis I uncrewed mission is on its way to lunar orbit, the first in a series of missions that plans to return humans to the moon by the end of the decade. A spacewalk in The International Space Station went down this week, and it went live. We fuck shit up on asteroids to prove we can. And our new friend, the James Webb Space Telescope, is just doing its job, quietly revising our whole understanding of how the universe works.
The JWST floats a million miles from Earth and returns images that make Hubble look like real shit. Naturally, the headline-grabbing photos of Webb are the most jaw-dropping – the photos that are particularly beautiful, or gorgeous, and awe-inspiring. Webb still takes a lot. But these more artistic images are, in a way, the telescope that does PR to justify its existence to the general public. The real science lies in analyzing the less sexy data: things that aren’t even on the visible spectrum, or in close analysis of relatively unspectacular photos. Yesterday’s big news comes from these daily images.
I realize that I risk underselling this, so: Sure these images are spectacular, even if they are not Pillars of Creation. And what they show, which is what’s magnified in Figure 2 bottom center, is a brain-melting superlative. This is the galaxy GLASS-z12, and it is thought to be 13.45 billion years old, just 350 million years after the creation of the universe in the Big Bang. This is the most distant starlight we have ever seen.
But it’s not the existence of the galaxy that excites scientists so much – we already knew there would be galaxies at that time, and we knew that the superior imagery from the JWST would reveal them. What was unexpected was how easy it was to find.
“Based on all the predictions, we thought we needed to search a much larger volume of space to find such galaxies,” said Marco Castellano of the National Astrophysical Institute in Rome, who led the study. one of two research articles published Thursday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Scientists had a model, based on current knowledge, for how many of those bright, fully formed galaxies in the very early days of the universe would be out there. This model predicted that a slice of sky about 10 times larger than what Webb captured would be needed to find them. Instead, Webb quickly questioned of them these galaxies, which scientists discovered just days after the data was released for study.
What this implies is that our models were flawed and that bright, populated galaxies could have formed faster and more frequently after the end of the Stellar Dark Age – about 100 million years after the Big Bang, when conditions in the early universe finally allowed gravity to start building stars – which we never imagined.
We were wrong! It’s so cool! Learning that we were wrong is, like, the whole literal point of science! Knowing that our models and predictions were inaccurate allows us to create new ones to better explain the observations, bringing us ever closer to being right. Science is iterative, and these small discoveries, rather than the big splashy pictures, are how the JWST will help us write and rewrite the early history of our universe.
“These observations blow your mind,” said Paola Santini, co-author of Castellano et al. paper. “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 mind-blowing.
These two new and young galaxies are already providing some intriguing observations. Namely, they are much brighter than we expected, and brighter than anything we have closer to Earth. “Their extreme luminosities are a real headache,” said Pascal Oesch, co-author of the second article published today. But there is an interesting possibility. It is assumed that at the very beginning of the universe, the stars would have been composed only of hydrogen and helium, simply because they had not yet had time to produce heavier elements by nuclear fusion. These so-called Population III stars are said to be incredibly hot and incredibly bright, and although they have long been theorized, they have never been observed. Until, perhaps, now.
This is, in every way, hot shit. Thanks, Webb.
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