In Massive Galactic Discovery, Webb Spots Super Old Galaxies That Shouldn’t Exist – “It’s Bananas!”

Artist Conception James Webb Space Telescope Illustration

James Webb Space Telescope artist’s conception. Credit: NASA-GSFC, Adriana M. Gutierrez (CI Lab)

In a new study, an international team of astrophysicists has discovered several mysterious objects hiding in images from the James Webb Space Telescope: six potential galaxies that emerged so early in the universe’s history and are so massive they should not be possible under current cosmological theory.

Each of the candidate galaxies may have existed at the dawn of the universe roughly 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, or more than 13 billion years ago. They’re also gigantic, containing almost as many stars as the modern-day Milky Way Galaxy.

“It’s bananas,” said Erica Nelson, co-author of the new research and assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “You just don’t expect the early universe to be able to organize itself that quickly. These galaxies should not have had time to form.”
Nelson and her colleagues, including first author Ivo Labbé of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, published their results on February 22 in the journal Nature.

Massive Early Galaxy Candidates

Images of six candidate massive galaxies, seen 500-800 million years after the Big Bang. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way, but is 30 times more compact. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen)

The latest finds aren’t the earliest galaxies observed by James Webb, which launched in December 2021 and is the most powerful telescope ever sent into space. Last year, another team of scientists spotted four galaxies that likely coalesced from gas around 350 million years after the Big Bang. Those objects, however, were downright shrimpy compared to the new galaxies, containing many times less mass from stars.

The researchers still need more data to confirm that these galaxies are as big as they look, and date as far back in time. Their preliminary observations, however, offer a tantalizing taste of how James Webb could rewrite astronomy textbooks.

“Another possibility is that these things are a different kind of weird object, such as faint quasars, which would be just as interesting,” Nelson said.

Fuzzy dots

There’s a lot of excitement going around: Last year, Nelson and her colleagues, who hail from the United States, Australia, Denmark, and Spain, formed an ad hoc team to investigate the data James Webb was sending back to Earth. 

Their recent findings stem from the telescope’s Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey. These images look deep into a patch of sky close to the Big Dipper—a relatively boring, at least at first glance, region of space that the Hubble Space Telescope first observed in the 1990s.

Webb Mosaic Near Big Dipper

A mosaic collected by James Webb of a region of space close to the Big Dipper, with insets showing the location of six new candidate galaxies from the dawn of the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology), Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen)

Nelson was peering at a postage stamp-sized section of one image when she spotted something strange: a few “fuzzy dots” of light that looked way too bright to be real. 

“They were so red and so bright,” Nelson said. “We weren’t expecting to see them.”

She explained that in astronomy, red light usually equals old light. The universe, Nelson said, has been expanding since the dawn of time. As it expands, galaxies and other celestial objects move farther apart, and the light they emit stretches out—think of it like the cosmic equivalent of saltwater taffy. The more the light stretches, the redder it looks to human instruments. (Light from objects coming closer to Earth, in contrast, looks bluer).

The team ran calculations and discovered that their old galaxies were also huge, harboring tens to hundreds of billions of sun-sized stars worth of mass, on par with the Milky Way.

These primordial galaxies, however, probably didn’t have much in common with our own.  

 “The Milky Way forms about one to two new star every year,” Nelson said. “Some of these galaxies would have to be forming hundreds of new stars a year for the entire history of the universe.”

Nelson and her colleagues want to use James Webb to collect a lot more information about these mysterious objects, but they’ve seen enough already to pique their curiosity. For a start, calculations suggest there shouldn’t have been enough normal matter—the kind that makes up planets and human bodies—at that time to form so many stars so quickly.

“If even one of these galaxies is real, it will push against the limits of our understanding of cosmology,” Nelson said.

Seeing back in time

For Nelson, the new findings are a culmination of a journey that began when she was in elementary school. When she was 10, she wrote a report about Hubble, a telescope that launched in 1990 and is still active today. Nelson was hooked.

“It takes time for light to go from a galaxy to us, which means that you’re looking back in time when you’re looking at these objects,” she said. “I found that concept so mind-blowing that I decided at that instant that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

The fast pace of discovery with James Webb is a lot like those early days of Hubble, Nelson said. At the time, many scientists believed that galaxies didn’t begin forming until billions of years after the Big Bang. But researchers soon discovered that the early universe was much more complex and exciting than they could have imagined. 

“Even though we learned our lesson already from Hubble, we still didn’t expect James Webb to see such mature galaxies existing so far back in time,” Nelson said. “I’m so excited.”

For more on this discovery, read “Massive” Webb Space Telescope Discovery Defies Prior Understanding of the Universe.

Reference: “A population of red candidate massive galaxies ~600 Myr after the Big Bang” by Ivo Labbé, Pieter van Dokkum, Erica Nelson, Rachel Bezanson, Katherine A. Suess, Joel Leja, Gabriel Brammer, Katherine Whitaker, Elijah Mathews, Mauro Stefanon and Bingjie Wang, 22 February 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05786-2

Other co-authors on the new study include Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University; Katherine Suess of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Joel Leja, Elijah Matthews and Bingjie Wang of the Pennsylvania State University; Gabriel Brammer and Katherine Whitaker of the University of Coppenhagen; and Mauro Stefanon of the University of Valencia.

2 Comments on "In Massive Galactic Discovery, Webb Spots Super Old Galaxies That Shouldn’t Exist – “It’s Bananas!”"

  1. When will science finally have enough evidence to abandon their Standard Cosmological Model? I can’t wait to hear the contortions they are going to come up with to explain the JWST data. A uniform CMBR must be because some unknown force paused the expansion of the universe just long enough for its temperature to equalize, right? Quantized redshifts must mean that galaxies formed in shells around the Milky Way, right? Massive galaxies with heavier elements within a few hundred million years of the “Big Bang” must mean… There are other cosmological models that answer all of these and more.

  2. Mister Spock. Please run a spectral analysis to measure the metal content of that galaxy.

    Yes, Captain.

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