Scientists expected that James Webb Space Telescope to reveal unknowns in the deepest realms of space.
But they certainly hadn’t expected this.
By scanning a region of the cosmos near the Big Dipper, a group of astronomers have identified six faint objects as they appeared well over 13 billion years ago. They suspect the objects are ancient galaxies. Scientists expect these early collections of stars and swirling matter to be relatively small. After all, such galaxies had not 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 press release(Opens in a new tab).
It’s bananas because the objects, which are “red and bright” in Webb’s observations, could host billions of stars (and many other planets), similar to our milky way galaxy. These galaxies formed some 500 to 700 million years after the creation of the universe during the big Bang(Opens in a new tab)and at such a time, there simply shouldn’t have been enough material to create fantastic explosions of stars and solar systems, Nelson explained.
Extremely distant galaxies are the fuzzy red objects shown below. They are red because the universe is expanding and light passing through it stretches, eventually moving to longer, redder wavelengths. Importantly, research into these galaxies is just beginning. It is possible, for example, that some of these bright red masses are another type of primordial object, such as a quasar (intensely hot energetic matter rotating around a black hole and emitting huge amounts of light into space).
The six “candidate galaxies” discovered by astronomers 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 also spotted even older galaxies, 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 the boundaries of our understanding of cosmology,” Nelson noted. Cosmology is the study of the origins and evolution of our universe. Where do we come from ? And how did we get here?
The Powerful Capabilities of the Webb Telescope
The Webb Telescope, a scientific collaboration between Nasa, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, orbits the Sun 1 million kilometers from Earth. It is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented information about the early universe.
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Here’s how Webb achieves unprecedented things, and probably for decades:
Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which catches the light, is over 21 feet in diameter. It is more than two and a half times larger than the of the Hubble Space Telescope mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant ancient objects. As described above, the telescope scans stars and galaxies that formed more than 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 formed,” Jean Creighton, astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.
Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely sees light visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it sees light in the infrared spectrum. It allows us to see much more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths(Opens in a new tab) than visible light, so that light waves glide more efficiently through cosmic clouds; light does not collide with these dense particles as often and is not scattered by them. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can penetrate places that Hubble cannot.
“It lifts the veil,” Creighton said.
Observing distant exoplanets: The Webb Telescope carries specialized equipment, called spectrometers(Opens in a new tab), which will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The instruments can decipher which molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets – whether gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find.
“We could learn things that we never thought of,” Mercedes López-Morales, exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(Opens in a new tab)told Mashable in 2021.
Already, astronomers have successfully found intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light years away.