The James Webb Telescope has been giving us clearer views of celestial objects and revealing hidden features since it went live last year. According to a study conducted by an international team of astrophysicists, it can now completely change our understanding of the cosmos too.
Looking at images taken by the telescope near the Big Dipper, scientists found six potential galaxies that formed just 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang. What makes them strange, however, isn’t that they could be nearly 13 billion years old, but that they could have as many stars as the Milky Way, according to the team’s calculations. The scientists explained that according to current cosmological theory, they shouldn’t exist because there shouldn’t be enough matter at that point for the galaxies to form as many stars as ours.
What the scientists saw in the images were a few fuzzy but very bright points of light that look red to our instruments, suggesting they are old. Joel Leja, one of the authors of the study, tells Space that scientists usually expect to see young and small galaxies glowing blue when looking into the old universe, since they appear to us as “objects that have only recently formed out of the cosmic primordial soup.” (Don’t forget that light takes some time to reach Earth, so we’re essentially looking back in time when we look at telescopic images.)
“We looked into the very early universe for the first time and had no idea what we would find. It turns out we’ve found something so unexpected that it actually creates problems for science. It challenges the whole picture of early galaxy formation,” said Leja. James Webb has previously captured images of even older galaxies, formed about 350 million years after the Big Bang. But they are tiny and do not challenge our knowledge of astrophysics.
That these six galaxies appear old and massive means that they formed hundreds of stars a year just after the Big Bang. In comparison, the Milky Way forms only about one or two new stars each year. Also, these potential galaxies are about 30 times more compact than ours, despite having just as many stars.
The scientists admit there’s a chance the blurry red dots they saw are something else, like faint quasars or supermassive black holes. They could actually be smaller than the predicted size that the scientists got from their calculations. The team needs more data and to verify their findings through spectroscopy, but they think they could have official confirmation sometime next year.
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