NASA’s new super space telescope is built to look back to the beginning of time and give us clues about how the universe came to be.
In less than a year, James Webb has already stunned us with incredible images, but now he’s challenging our understanding of the origins of galaxies.
That’s because the $10bn (£7.4bn) observatory has just spotted six huge galaxies in the early universe that are so old they shouldn’t really exist.
“These objects are much more massive than anyone expected,” said Joel Leja, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State.
“We expected to find only small, young baby galaxies at this point, but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as ours in what was previously thought to be the dawn of the universe.”
Breaking ground: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope just spotted six massive galaxies in the early Universe (pictured) that are so old they shouldn’t exist. One of the sources (lower left) could contain as many stars as our current Milky Way
The researchers said their new discovery “pushes the boundaries of our understanding of cosmology,” suggesting that galaxies grew in mass faster than expected early in the universe’s history.
“We’ve informally dubbed these objects “universe breakers” — and so far they’ve lived up to their name,” Leja said.
INSTRUMENTS ON THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE
NIRCam (Near InfraRed Camera) an infrared camera from the edge of the visible through the near infrared
NIRSpec (Near InfraRed Spectrograph) will also perform spectroscopy over the same wavelength range.
MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) measures the medium to long infrared wavelength range from 5 to 27 microns.
FGS/NIRISS (Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph), is used to stabilize the observatory’s line of sight during scientific observations.
He added that the galaxies were so large that they conflicted with 99 percent of cosmological models.
To explain the high mass, either these models need to be changed, or astronomers would have to change their fundamental understanding of how galaxies formed in the early universe.
Namely, that they started out as small clouds of stars and dust that gradually grew larger over time.
Whichever way scientists go, Leja said it would require a fundamental rethinking of how the universe came to be.
“The revelation that the formation of massive galaxies began extremely early in the history of the universe turns what many of us thought was solid science on its head,” Leja said.
He said the international team of researchers had “no idea what we would find” when they looked at Webb’s first set of data from the early universe.
“It turns out we found something so unexpected that it actually poses problems for science. It calls into question the whole picture of early galaxy formation,” Leja added.
The new findings show that the six galaxies were as mature as our Milky Way when the universe was only 3 percent of its current age – about 500-700 million years after the Big Bang.
Webb is able to look back in time as far as 13.5 billion years – about two million years after the universe was formed – because it infrared sensing instruments that can detect light emitted from the oldest stars and galaxies.
Mind-boggling: Researchers said their new discovery suggests that galaxies grew in mass faster than expected early in the universe’s history. These images are a composite of separate exposures taken by the James Webb Space Telescope using the NIRCam instrument
“This is our first glimpse so far, so it’s important that we keep an open mind about what we see,” Leja said.
“While the data indicates they are likely galaxies, I think there is a real possibility that some of these objects could turn out to be hidden supermassive black holes.
‘Anyway, the amount of mass we’ve discovered means that the known mass of stars in this period of our universe is up to 100 times greater than we previously thought.
“Even if we cut the monster in half, this is still an amazing change.”
The research was carried out using the spectroscopic data and Webb’s first color images, released by NASA last July.
“Once we got the data, everyone just started diving in and these huge things came out really quickly,” Leja said.
“We started modeling and trying to figure out what they were because they were so big and bright.
Time Machine: Webb (pictured in an artist’s impression) can see as far back in time as 13.5 billion years — about two million years after the universe was formed — because it has infrared-sensitive instruments capable of detecting light emitted from emitted by the oldest stars
“My first thought was that we’d made a mistake and we’d just find it and move on with our lives. But we have yet to find that mistake despite many attempts.’
Leja said the way for astronomers to confirm his team’s findings would be to create a spectrum image of the massive galaxies.
This, he added, would provide data on the actual distances of the galaxies and also on the gases and other elements they are made of, in turn giving experts a clearer idea of how massive they really were.
“A spectrum will tell us immediately if these things are real,” Leja said.
“It will show us how big they are, how far away they are. The funny thing is we have all these things that we hope to learn from James Webb and this was nowhere near the top of the list.
“We found something we never thought we’d ask the universe — and it happened much faster than I thought, but here we are.”
The discovery was published in the journal Nature.
The James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies
The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unlock the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The massive telescope, which has already cost more than $7bn (£5bn), is thought to be a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 degrees Celsius).
It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of looking back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working together for a while.
The Hubble telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It orbits Earth at about 17,000 mph (27,300 km/h) in low Earth orbit at about 340 miles altitude.