Fresh Webb Image Not Only Breathtaking, But also Breaks a Record

This image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope displays (in the enclosed area) the most ancient galaxy ever identified.

This image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope showcases (in the enclosed area) the most ancient galaxy ever identified.Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STSc / B. Robertson (UC Santa Cruz) / B. Johnson (CfA) / S. Tacchella (Cambridge) / P. Cargile (CfA)

The most potent space telescope ever constructed has gazed into the beginning of time.

You heard correctly. The James Webb Space Telescope — equipped with a massive mirror that captures incredibly faint light, coupled with its capability to observe infrared light that can penetrate vast clouds of cosmic gas — has enabled astronomers to detect the earliest galaxy ever observed (thus far). It came into existence a mere 290 million years after the Big Bang, preceding the formation of our galaxy. Our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old.

For humans to witness this incredibly distant galaxy, known as JADES-GS-z14-0, indicates its exceptional brightness. (The galaxy’s designation is derived from one of Webb’s numerous ongoing scientific endeavors, known as the “JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) program.)

“This finding not only set a new distance record for our team; the most significant aspect of JADES-GS-z14-0 was that at this distance, we understand that this galaxy must be inherently very luminous,” explained astronomers Stefano Carniani from Scuola Normale Superiore in Italy, and Kevin Hainline from the University of Arizona, in a statement.

The galaxy “shattered” the previous record, they added, which emerged around 350 million years after the Big Bang.

The image below, a profound view into the universe, is almost entirely filled with galaxies, many of which are spirals akin to our Milky Way. The only non-galactic entities are the six-pointed luminous spots, which are foreground stars. The groundbreaking galaxy, amidst the much nearer and clearer galaxies, is that reddish mass.

The galaxy appears red because as the universe has continuously expanded over billions of years, its light has stretched, akin to taffy. Longer light wavelengths appear red. (In contrast, blue wavelengths are a much shorter segment of visible light.)

This enlarged section reveals the most ancient galaxy identified to date, JADES-GS-z14-0.

Scientists utilized a highly specialized tool on the Webb telescope, known as the Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, to ascertain the age of this remote galaxy. A spectrometer functions somewhat like a prism, segregating light into various colors or components, ultimately enabling astronomers to analyze the physical characteristics and composition of the object they are observing, such as a galaxy or planet. In this instance, researchers searched for specific light patterns caused by the extreme redshift, confirming the age of the light — and consequently, the age of such a galaxy.

Despite being well over 13 billion light-years away (a light-year is nearly 6 trillion miles), JADES-GS-z14-0 shines unexpectedly bright. This leads astronomers to ponder a weighty question as they delve into the dawn of time:

“This abundance of starlight suggests that the galaxy is several hundred million times the mass of the sun!” noted the researchers. “This prompts the question: How can nature create such a luminous, massive, and sizable galaxy in under 300 million years?”

The formidable capabilities of the Webb telescope

The Webb telescope — a collaborative scientific effort between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency — is engineered to peer into the deepest reaches of the cosmos and unveil fresh insights about the early universe. However, it also scrutinizes intriguing planets within our galaxy, as well as the planets and moons in our solar system.

Here’s how Webb is accomplishing unparalleled achievements, likely for years to come:

– Enormous mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, spans over 21 feet in diameter. That’s more than two and a half times larger than the mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope. By capturing more light, Webb can observe more distant, ancient objects. As mentioned earlier, the telescope is observing stars and galaxies that materialized over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

“We’re going to witness the very first stars and galaxies that ever existed,” remarked Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, in 2021.

– Infrared perspective: Unlike Hubble, which predominantly observes visible light, Webb is predominantly an infrared telescope, perceiving light in the infrared spectrum. This enables us to explore more of the universe. Infrared light has longer wavelengths than visible light, allowing the light waves to more easily traverse cosmic clouds; the light encounters fewer collisions and scatterings by these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can penetrate regions that Hubble cannot.

“It unveils what was hidden,” remarked Creighton.

– Delving into distant exoplanets: As mentioned earlier, the Webb telescope is equipped with specialized tools called spectrographs that will revolutionize our comprehension of these distant worlds. These instruments can decipher the molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) present in the atmospheres of remote exoplanets — whether they are gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will scrutinize exoplanets within the Milky Way galaxy. The possibilities are endless.

“We may discover things we never even imagined,” stated Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian, in 2021.

Astronomers have already detected intriguing chemical interactions on a planet located 700 light-years away, and as mentioned earlier, the observatory has commenced observing one of the most anticipated regions in the cosmos: the rocky, Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.

Evan Brooks

Hey there! I'm Evan Brooks, a tech journalist based in New York City. With a knack for distilling complex industry jargon into engaging narratives, I've… More »

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