June 14, 2024
An artist’s concept of a galaxy forming when our universe was only a few hundred million years old. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI))

James Webb Space Telescope spots 3 of our universe’s earliest galaxies

“You could say that these are the first ‘direct’ images of galaxy formation that we’ve ever seen.”

Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope have found what they say are three of our universe’s earliest galaxies, spotted actively forming when the cosmos was just 400 million to 600 million years old.

In the JWST’s images, this galactic trio resembles fuzzy red smudges feeding on nearby helium and hydrogen.Over millions of years, it is these elements that sustain such galaxies as they grow, helping to shape them into the familiar ellipses and spirals we see across the cosmos.

“You could say that these are the first ‘direct’ images of galaxy formation that we’ve ever seen,” study lead author Kasper Elm Heintz, who is an astrophysicist at the Cosmic Dawn Center (DAWN) in Denmark, said in a statement. “Whereas James Webb has previously shown us early galaxies at later stages of evolution, here we witness their very birth, and thus, the construction of the first star systems in the universe.”

About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, our universe was ushered into darkness. This occurred after space had cooled down enough from its formerly chaotic and scorching self to allow neutral hydrogen atoms to form, which blanketed the cosmos in an opaque primordial fog. That fog lifted about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, when light from the first generation of stars flooded the universe. Recent research has shown dwarf galaxies that formed during the first few hundred million years of the universe packed a surprisingly abundant punch to drive this fog-relieving process.

“This is the process that we see the beginning of in our observations,” study co-author Darach Watson said in the university statement. “These galaxies are like sparkling islands in a sea of otherwise neutral, opaque gas,” Heintz added in a NASA statement.

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