NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is finding bright, early galaxies that have been hidden from view until now, including one that may have formed just 350 million years after the big bang.
Astronomers said Thursday that if the results are confirmed, this newly discovered host of stars will surpass the most distant galaxy identified by the Hubble Space Telescope – the record holder that formed 400 million years after the universe began.
Launched last December as the successor to Hubble, the Webb telescope suggests that stars may have formed earlier than previously thought – perhaps within a few million years of the big bang.
Webb’s latest findings are detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters by an international team led by Rohan Naidu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The article elaborates on two extremely bright galaxies, the first thought to have formed 350 million years after the big bang, and the second 450 million years after.
Naidu said more infrared observations by Webb would be needed before requesting a new recorder.
Although some researchers report discovering galaxies even closer to the creation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago, those candidates have yet to be verified, scientists said at a NASA news conference. Some of these could be later galaxies that mimic earlier ones, they noted.
“This is a very dynamic time,” said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who co-authored the paper published Thursday. “There have been many preliminary announcements of even earlier galaxies, and we as a community are still trying to discern which ones are likely real.”
Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles, chief scientist of Webb’s Early Release Science Program, said the evidence presented so far is “as good as we can get” for a galaxy believed to have formed 350 meters after the big bang.
If the findings are confirmed and there are more early galaxies, Raidu and his team wrote that Webb “will prove to be very successful in pushing the cosmic frontier all the way to the edge of the big bang.”
“When and how the first galaxies formed remains one of the most intriguing questions,” the researchers wrote.
NASA’s Jane Rigby, a project scientist with Webb, noted that these galaxies “were hiding right below the limits of what Hubble can do.”
“They were there waiting for us,” she told reporters. “So it’s a happy surprise that there are a lot of these galaxies to study.”
The $10 billion observatory – the largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space – is in a solar orbit 1.6 million km from Earth. Full science operations began over the summer, and NASA has since released a series of dazzling images of space.