One of the amazing things about the James Webb Space Telescope is the level of detail it is able to capture of very distant objects — but it can be hard to picture what that means when the distances being considered are so large. Now, a new visualization gives a feel of just how detailed the data from the telescope is, by showing how it’s possible to start with a stunning view of thousands of galaxies and zoom closer and closer in until you reach just one.
The visualization uses data from the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) survey, which searches large areas of the sky to look for some of the earliest galaxies. That means it needs images of large regions, but it also needs data on each individual galaxy to look for the large redshifts which indicate a very distant (and therefore very old) galaxy. The visualization shows a small part of a region called the Extended Groth Strip, which contains over 100,000 galaxies in total.
The galaxy that the visualization zooms in toward is called Maisie’s Galaxy, which is from just 390 million years after the big bang and was named after the daughter of one of the researchers.
“This observatory just opens up this entire period of time for us to study,” said one of the survey’s investigators, Rebecca Larson of the Rochester Institute of Technology, in a statement. “We couldn’t study galaxies like Maisie’s before because we couldn’t see them. Now, not only are we able to find them in our images, we’re able to find out what they’re made of and if they differ from the galaxies that we see close by.”
One open question is about the formation of early galaxies, as research with Webb has shown that early galaxies are bigger and brighter than expected.
“This observation exceeded our expectations. The sheer number of galaxies that we’re finding in the early universe is at the upper end of all predictions,” said researcher Steven Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin.
Future research could help address these open questions, Finkelstein said: “Are these galaxies forming more stars than expected? Are the stars they’re making more massive than we expect? These data have given us the information to ask these questions. Now, we need more data to get those answers.”
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