The James Webb Space Telescope allowed astronomers to see things they couldn’t explain.
At least, not yet.
In new research(opens in new tab) from Webb — the most powerful space observatory ever built — astronomers spent 50 hours peering into the deepest cosmos, and saw some of the first galaxies form, more than 13 billion years ago. Capturing such a rich cosmic vista, with the faintest objects ever seen by mankind, is a remarkable feat. But the data also show that these primeval galaxies released enormous amounts of energy into space – 10 times more than scientists predicted.
The “key” question is how these nascent galaxies have achieved this, Pablo G. Pérez-González, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrobiology in Spain, said in a statement. Strange black holes? Vibrant star? Pérez-González is an author of the research, published in the scientific journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Webb telescope just spotted something unprecedented in the Orion Nebula
The Webb telescope is a very sensitive instrument, capable of capturing some of the most distant light in space. That’s because Webb is looking at a type of light we can’t see, called infrared, which travels at longer wavelengths than visible light. Essentially, ancient light was stretched as the universe expanded, meaning it changed and “redshifted.”
The powerful Webb, then, can detect the energy created by the first galaxies. Astronomers met 44 galaxies that likely formed in the first 500 million years of the universe. Originally, this energy was emitted in the form of ultraviolet light, but it also stretched into infrared.
In the image below, released by the researchers, you can see:
Left: A deep field view of the cosmos with bright spiral galaxies in the foreground and many older galaxies in the distance. Almost all of these objects are galaxies.
Right: Zoomed-in view of three of the highly redshifted galaxies emitting unexpected amounts of energy. “They would have formed in the first 200 to 500 million years after the Big Bang, when the age of the universe was 1-5 percent of today’s age. [age],” explained a statement about the research.
Ancient galaxies imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope’s MIRI Deep Imaging Survey.
Credit: Pierluigi Rinaldi / Rafael Navarro-Carrera / Pablo G. Pérez-González
The electromagnetic spectrum that shows all wavelengths of light, such as visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, and more.
Astronomers have modeled, with advanced computing, how the universe evolved over billions of years, beginning with the formation of the first stars and galaxies, and eventually creating the essential organic materials for life. But no simulations predicted such an intense release of ultraviolet energy. What could this explain?
These could be young, energetic stars, hotter than our average-sized sun, releasing a lot of energy into space. or, it’s possible that this ancient light was created by supermassive black holes, objects hundreds of thousands to billions of times the mass of the sun and often found at the center of galaxies, such as our Milky Way.
But this creates another question: “Where did that massive black hole come from?” asked Pérez-González.
“So far JWST is giving us more questions than answers, but these new lines of research are exciting.”
He wonders how such giant objects — with gravities so strong that even light cannot escape — formed so quickly, so early in the history of the universe. Most black holes are created from exploding stars, but perhaps these black holes formed in a different way? So many questions.
“So far JWST gives us more questions than answers, but these new lines of research are exciting,” the researchers said.
Stay tuned for more Webb answers — and questions.
An artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope orbiting the sun 1 million miles from Earth.
The powerful capabilities of the Webb telescope
The Webb telescope — a scientific collaboration between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency — is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented insights into the early universe. But it also looks at intriguing planets in our galaxy, and even planets in our solar system.
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Here’s how Webb has achieved unprecedented things, and will likely achieve it for decades:
Large mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures the light, is more than 21 feet in diameter. That’s more than two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant ancient objects. As described above, the telescope looks at stars and galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
“We’ll see the very first stars and galaxies form,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.
Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which looks mostly at the light we can see, the Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it looks at light in the infrared spectrum. It allows us to see more of the universe. Infrared has a longer wavelength(opens in new tab) than visible light, so light waves are better able to penetrate cosmic clouds; light does not collide as often and is scattered by these particles more densely. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision could penetrate areas Hubble could not.
“It lifts the veil,” Creighton said.
Peeking at distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carrying special equipment called spectrometers(opens in new tab) that will change our understanding of these distant worlds. The instruments can determine what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — whether they are gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look for exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we will find.
“We can learn things we never imagined,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(opens in new tab)told Mashable in 2021.
Now, astronomers have successfully detected intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and the observatory has begun looking at one of the most anticipated places in the cosmos: the rocky, Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.
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