Scientists expected the James Webb Space Telescope to reveal unknowns in the deepest realms of space.
But they certainly didn’t anticipate this.
While scanning a region of the cosmos near the Big Dipper, a group of astronomers identified six faint objects as they appeared well over 13 billion years ago. They suspect the objects are ancient galaxies. Scientists expect such early collections of stars and swirling matter to be relatively small. After all, such galaxies hadn’t had much time to form or grow. But these galaxies are giants, the researchers report.
“It’s bananas,” Erica Nelson, an astrophysicist at CU Boulder who worked on the new research, said in a statement(Opens in a new tab).
It’s bananas because the objects, which are “red and bright” in the Webb observations, might host billions of stars (and many more planets), similar to our Milky Way galaxy. These galaxies formed some 500 to 700 million years after the universe was created during the Big Bang(Opens in a new tab), and at such a time there simply shouldn’t have been enough matter around to create fantastic bursts of stars and solar systems, Nelson explained.
The extremely distant galaxies are the fuzzy red objects shown below. They’re red because the universe is expanding, and the light traveling through it becomes stretched out, ultimately shifting to longer, redder wavelengths. Importantly, the research about these galaxies is just beginning. There is potential, for example, that some of these bright red masses are a different kind of primordial object, like a quasar (intensely hot, energetic matter spinning around a black hole and emitting tremendous amounts of light into space).
The six “candidate galaxies” astronomers discovered near the Big Dipper.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen)
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Astronomers using the Webb telescope have spotted even earlier galaxies, too, including some that formed just 350 million years after the Big Bang. But these galaxies are much smaller. They make more sense than the recently spotted behemoths.
“If even one of these galaxies is real, it will push against the limits of our understanding of cosmology,” Nelson noted. Cosmology is the study of our universe’s origins and evolution. Where’d we come from? And how did we get here?
The Webb telescope’s powerful abilities
The Webb telescope, a scientific collaboration between NASA, the ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency, orbits the sun 1 million miles from Earth. It’s designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented insights about the early universe.
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Here’s how Webb is achieving unparalleled things, and likely will for decades:
Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet across. That’s over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. As described above, the telescope is peering at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
“We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that ever formed,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.
Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely views light that’s visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it views light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see far more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths(Opens in a new tab) than visible light, so the light waves more efficiently slip through cosmic clouds; the light doesn’t as often collide with and get scattered by these densely-packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared eyesight can penetrate places Hubble can’t.
“It lifts the veil,” said Creighton.
Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carries specialized equipment, called spectrometers(Opens in a new tab), that will revolutionize our understanding of these far-off worlds. The instruments can decipher what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — be it gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find.
“We might learn things we never thought about,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(Opens in a new tab), told Mashable in 2021.
Already, astronomers successfully found intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away.