NASA’s Webb Space Telescope is finding bright primordial galaxies that were until now hidden from view, including one that may have formed just 350 million years after the Big Bang that created the cosmos.
Astronomers said Thursday that if the results hold true, this newly discovered crowd of stars would beat out the most distant galaxy identified by the Hubble Space Telescope, a record holder that formed 400 million years after the universe began.
Launched last December as a successor to Hubble, the Webb telescope indicates that stars may have formed earlier than previously thought, perhaps within a couple of million years of creation.
Webb’s latest findings were detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters by an international team led by Rohan Naidu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The article delves into two exceptionally bright galaxies, the first thought to have formed 350 million years after the Big Bang and the other 450 million years after.
Naidu said more infrared observations from Webb are needed before he can claim a new distance record holder.
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 pointed out at a NASA news conference. Some of these could be later galaxies mimicking earlier ones, they noted.
“This is a very dynamic moment,” said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, co-author of the paper published Thursday. “There have been many preliminary announcements of even earlier galaxies, and we’re still trying to figure out as a community which of these might be real.”
Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles, a lead scientist in Webb’s Early Release Science Program, said the evidence presented so far “is solid enough” for the galaxy believed to have formed 350 million after the Big Bang.
If the results hold true and there are other early galaxies out there, Raidu and his team wrote that Webb “will prove highly successful in pushing the cosmic frontier to the brink of the Big Bang.”
“When and how the first galaxies formed remains one of the most intriguing questions,” they said in their paper.
NASA’s Jane Rigby, a project scientist with Webb, noted that these galaxies “lurked just below the limits of what Hubble could do.”
“They were right there waiting for us,” he told reporters. “So it’s a happy surprise that there are many such galaxies to study.”
The $10 billion observatory, the world’s largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space, is in a solar orbit 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. Full science operations began over the summer, and NASA has since released a series of dazzling snapshots of the universe.
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