(ORDO NEWS) — Just a week after the first images were released to the world, the James Webb Space Telescope may have discovered a galaxy that existed 13.5 billion years ago, a scientist who analyzed the data said Wednesday.
Known as GLASS-z13, the galaxy dates back 300 million years after the Big Bang, about 100 million years earlier than anything previously discovered, Rohan Naidoo of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics told AFP.
“We are potentially looking at the most distant starlight anyone has ever seen,” he said.
The more distant objects are from us, the longer it takes their light to reach us, so looking into the distant Universe means looking into the deep past.”
Although GLASS-z13 existed in the earliest era of the universe, its exact age remains unknown, as it could have formed at any time during the first 300 million years.
GLASS-z13 was seen in so-called “early releases” of data taken by the orbiting observatory’s primary infrared observation device, called the NIRcam, but the discovery was not found in the first set of images released by NASA last week.
Translated from infrared to visible light, the galaxy appears as a blob of red with white at the center, part of a larger image of deep space called the “deep field”.
Naidoo and his colleagues – a team of 25 astronomers from around the world – have submitted their results to a scientific journal.
While the study is hosted on the preprint server, so it has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it has already stirred up the global astronomical community.
“Astronomical records are already breaking and even more shaky,” NASA Chief Scientist Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted.
“Yes, I’m usually happy only when scientific results are peer-reviewed. But it looks very promising,” he added.
Another group of astronomers, led by Marco Castellano, working with the same data, came to similar conclusions, Naidoo said, “so that gives us confidence.”
Work to be done
One of Webb’s biggest promises is its ability to find the earliest galaxies that formed after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.
Because they are so far from Earth, by the time their light reaches us, it has been stretched out by the expansion of the universe and shifted into the infrared region of the light spectrum, which Webb is able to detect with unprecedented clarity.
Naidoo and his colleagues combed through this infrared data from the distant universe, looking for signatures of extremely distant galaxies.
Below a certain infrared wavelength threshold, all photons – packets of energy – are absorbed by the neutral hydrogen of the Universe, which is located between the object and the observer.
Using data collected through different infrared filters aimed at the same region of space, they were able to determine where the fall in photons was occurring, from which they inferred the presence of these most distant galaxies.
“We checked all the early data looking for galaxies with such a striking signature, and these were the two systems that had the most convincing signature,” Naidu said.
One of them is GLASS-z13, and the other, not so ancient, is GLASS-z11.
“There is compelling evidence, but there is still work to be done,” Naidoo said.
Specifically, the team wants to ask Webb’s managers for the telescope’s operating time to conduct spectroscopy – an analysis of light that reveals detailed properties – to measure precise distances.
“Right now our assumptions about distance are based on what we can’t see – it would be great to get an answer to what we see,” said Naidoo.
However, the team has already discovered surprising properties.
For example, a galaxy has the mass of a billion suns, which is “potentially very surprising and something we don’t really understand” considering how soon after the Big Bang it formed, Naidoo said.
Launched last December and fully operational last week, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built, and astronomers are confident it will herald a new era of discovery.
Contact us: [email protected]