The Webb telescope is observing surprisingly massive galaxies from the early universe

(CNN) Astronomers have used the James Webb Space Telescope to look back in time to the early days of the universe – and they’ve discovered something unexpected.

The space observatory has revealed six massive galaxies that existed between 500 million and 700 million years after the Big Bang that created the universe. The discovery completely upends existing theories about the origins of galaxies, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Science. nature.

“These objects are much more massive than anyone expected,” study co-author Joel Lega, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, said in a statement. “We only expected to find young, young galaxies at this point in time, but we did find mature galaxies like our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”

The telescope observes the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, and is able to detect faint light from ancient stars and galaxies. By looking out into the distant universe, the observatory can essentially see back to about 13.5 billion years ago. (Scientists have determined that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.)

“The revelation that the formation of massive galaxies began so early in the history of the universe upends what many of us thought was established science,” Lega said. “We informally called these beings the Universe Shatterer — and they have stayed true to their name until now.”

Galaxies are so massive that they contradict 99% of models representing the early galaxies in the universe, which means scientists need to rethink how galaxies form and evolve. Current theory suggests that galaxies began as small clouds of stars and dust that grew over time.

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“We looked at the very early universe for the first time and had no idea what we were going to find,” Lega said. “It turns out that we’ve found something so unexpected that it creates problems for science. It calls into question the whole picture of early galaxy formation.”

Exploration of early galaxies

Leja and colleagues began analyzing Webb’s data along with The first high-resolution images from the telescope, once they were released in July. The galaxies appeared as large points of light, and the team was surprised to see them — they were so surprised, they thought they had made a mistake in interpreting the data.

“When we got the data, everyone just started diving in and these huge things appeared very quickly,” Lega said. “We started doing modeling and tried to figure out what it was, because it was so big and bright. My first thought was we made a mistake and we’re going to find it and move on with our lives. But we just haven’t found that mistake, despite a lot of trying.”

One way to determine why galaxies are growing so quickly, Lega said, is to take a spectroscopic image of the galaxies, which involves splitting the light into different wavelengths to identify the different elements, as well as determining the true distance of the galaxies. The spectroscopy data will provide a more detailed view of the galaxies and their impressive size.

“The spectrum will tell us right away whether or not these things are real,” Lega said. “It’s going to show us how big they are, how far they are. What’s funny is we have all these things we hope to learn from James Webb and this was nowhere near the top of the list. We found something we never thought I’d ask the universe – and it happened way faster than I thought.” I imagine, but here we go.”

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It’s also possible that the galaxies identified with Webb’s data could be something else entirely.

“This is the first glimpse of the retrospective so far, so it’s important that we open our minds about what we’re seeing,” Lega said. “While the data suggests they are potential galaxies, I think there is a very real possibility that some of these objects morph into supermassive black holes. Regardless, the amount of mass we detected means that the known mass in stars in this period of our universe is up to 100 times greater.” times than we previously thought. And even if we cut the sample in half, it’s still an amazing change.”

Webb took pictures of six massive galaxies. One of them (lower left) could contain as many stars as our own Milky Way, but it’s about 30 times more compact.

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