December 3, 2022

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James Webb's Photos Excite and Surprise Scientists: NPR

James Webb’s Photos Excite and Surprise Scientists: NPR

The small red dot highlighted within the white square in this James Webb Space Telescope image is an early galaxy, seen just 350 million years after the Big Bang.

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The small red dot highlighted within the white square in this James Webb Space Telescope image is an early galaxy, seen just 350 million years after the Big Bang.

STScI/NASA

New baby photos of the universe, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, show that galaxies are starting to form faster and earlier than expected.

The telescope was launched in December and is now orbiting the sun about a million miles from Earth. Its giant mirror allows it to detect faint light that has been traveling throughout the roughly 13.8 billion year old history of the universe. This means he can effectively see what the galaxies looked like way back in time.

The footage taken so far has both amazed and baffled scientists, because it turns out that many luminous galaxies existed when the universe was very young.

“Only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, there are already a lot of galaxies,” he says. Tommaso Trio, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles. “JWST has broken new ground, bringing us closer to understanding how it all began.”

in research Leaves Posted in Astrophysical Journal LettersTrieu and other astronomers report the discovery of one galaxy dating back only 450 million years after the start, and another dating back 350 million years.

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This latest discovery broke a record set by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2016, when it managed to catch a glimpse of a galaxy called GN-z11, which existed about 400 million years after the Big Bang.

astronomer Garth Illingworth From the University of California, Santa Cruz was a member of the team that built the GN-z11, and says seeing it was a “huge surprise.” But now, with the help of their new space telescope, scientists know it wasn’t just a weird alien—because they have at least two more examples.

The reddish blob is a newly discovered galaxy seen 350 million years after the Big Bang.

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“These galaxies we’re talking about are bright, and so they’ve been hiding under the limits of what Hubble can do,” he says Gene RigbyOperations Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. “They were there waiting for us.”

Since astronomers began using the planet Earth theory, some have claimed to have spotted galaxies from earlier eras, such as 250 million years after the Big Bang. But these are more empirical observations.

“We feel very confident about those two things, but less confident about the others,” Illingworth says. “There is definitely a lot of discussion going on.”

The two newly seen galaxies are much smaller than our own, the Milky Way, and one of them appears to be unexpectedly elongated.

Since so many early bright galaxies have been seen by JWST, astronomers are having to rethink their old ideas about the evolution of the universe.

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“It’s exciting for us, from a theoretical point of view, that there may be some open questions about how these galaxies formed their stars so early that we are able to detect large numbers of them,” Cihan Kartaltepe from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Finding galaxies like these, and building a greater understanding of how the universe evolved to be the way it is today, is why astronomers have spent decades and $10 billion designing and launching the JWST.

“We can see that we are really on the right track to fulfilling the dream of understanding galaxies as soon as possible,” says Illingworth. “The past few months have been exciting, but we still have a lot to learn.”