Skip to main content

James Webb spots ‘universe-breaking’ massive early galaxies

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to throw up surprises, and recently it has been used to spot some very old galaxies which have astonished astronomers. The galaxy candidates are far more massive than anyone expected would be possible, challenging assumptions about the early universe.

An international team of astronomers spotted six potential galaxies in a region of space close to the Big Dipper constellation from just 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was still in its infancy. “These objects are way more massive​ than anyone expected,” said one of the researchers, Joel Leja of Penn State. “We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time, but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”

Images of six candidate massive galaxies, seen 500-700 million years after the Big Bang. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way, according to researchers, but it is 30 times more compact.
Images of six candidate massive galaxies, seen 500-700 million years after the Big Bang. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way, according to researchers, but it is 30 times more compact. 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 galaxies appear to contain almost as many stars as our modern-day Milky Way but are much more compact. The researchers stress that they need more data to confirm whether these galaxies definitely are as old as they seem, but if so they could have a profound impact on the way we understand the early universe.

“It’s bananas,” said Erica Nelson of CU Boulder, another of the researchers. “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.”

It’s possible that some of the objects could turn out to be supermassive black holes or quasars, but the researchers think they are more likely to be galaxies. “If even one of these galaxies is real, it will push against the limits of our understanding of cosmology,” Nelson said.

The issue is that current models of cosmology posit that early galaxies should be very small, only growing larger over a long period of time.

“We looked into the very early universe for the first time and had no idea what we were going to find,” Leja said. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Stunning image shows the magnetic fields of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, who produced the first ever image of our Milky Way black hole released in 2022, has captured a new view of the massive object at the center of our Galaxy: how it looks in polarized light. This is the first time astronomers have been able to measure polarization, a signature of magnetic fields, this close to the edge of Sagittarius A*. This image shows the polarized view of the Milky Way black hole. The lines mark the orientation of polarization, which is related to the magnetic field around the shadow of the black hole.

The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, the group that took the historic first-ever image of a black hole, is back with a new stunning black hole image. This one shows the magnetic fields twirling around the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*.

Black holes are hard to image because they swallow anything that comes close to them, even light, due to their immensely powerful gravity. However, that doesn't mean they are invisible. The black hole itself can't be seen, but the swirling matter around the event horizon's edges glows brightly enough to be imaged. This new image takes advantage of a feature of light called polarization, revealing the powerful magnetic fields that twirl around the enormous black hole.

Read more
The expansion rate of the universe still has scientists baffled
This image of NGC 5468, a galaxy located about 130 million light-years from Earth, combines data from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. This is the most distant galaxy in which Hubble has identified Cepheid variable stars. These are important milepost markers for measuring the expansion rate of the Universe. The distance calculated from Cepheids has been cross-correlated with a Type Ia supernova in the galaxy. Type Ia supernovae are so bright they are used to measure cosmic distances far beyond the range of the Cepheids, extending measurements of the Universe’s expansion rate deeper into space.

The question of how fast the universe is expanding continues to confound scientists. Although it might seem like a fairly straightforward issue, the reality is that it has been perplexing the best minds in physics and astronomy for decades -- and new research using the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope doesn't make the answer any clearer.

Scientists know that the universe is expanding over time, but what they can't agree on is the rate at which this is happening -- called the Hubble constant. There are two main methods used to estimate this constant: one that looks at how fast distant galaxies are moving away from us, and one that looks at leftover energy from the Big Bang called the cosmic microwave background. The trouble is, these two methods give different results.

Read more
See what James Webb and Hubble are observing right now with this tool
james webb hubble live tracker screenshot 2024 03 06 220259

If you're looking for a relaxing way to peruse the fascinating sights of space on your lunch break, then a newly updated tool from NASA has you covered. The Space Telescope Live tools show the current targets of the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, letting you browse the cosmos from the perspective of two of the hardest-working telescopes out there.

You can visit the web-based tools at WebbTelescope for the James Webb Space Telescope and HubbleSite for the Hubble Space Telescope. Clicking on a link will bring you to a portal showing the current and past observations of the telescope and a ton of detail about the observations.

Read more