Webb is the world’s largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space.
CAPE CANAVERAL (AP) — NASA’s Webb Space Telescope is finding bright, early galaxies previously hidden from view, including one that may have formed just 350 million years after the cosmic Big Bang.
Astronomers said Thursday that if the results are verified, this newfound cluster of stars would beat the most distant galaxy identified by the Hubble Space Telescope, a record-holder that formed 400 million years after the universe began.
The Webb Telescope, launched last December to succeed Hubble, suggests that stars may have formed earlier than previously thought — perhaps within a few million years of formation.
Webb’s latest discoveries were described in the Astrophysical Journal Letters by an international team led by Rohan Naidu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The article details two extraordinarily bright galaxies, the first believed to have formed 350 million years after the Big Bang and the other 450 million years later.
Naidu said Webb needs more infrared observations before he can claim a new distance record holder.
Although some researchers report spotting galaxies even closer to where the Universe formed 13.8 billion years ago, these candidates have yet to be verified, scientists pointed out at a NASA news conference. Some of these could be later galaxies mimicking earlier ones, they noted.
“This is a very dynamic time,” said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a co-author of the article published Thursday. “There have been many preliminary announcements from even earlier galaxies, and we’re still trying to figure out as a community which of these are likely real.”
Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles, a senior scientist for Webb’s early release science program, said the evidence presented so far is “as solid as it gets” for the galaxy thought to have formed after the Big Bang formed 350 million people.
If the results are confirmed and more early galaxies are out there, Naidu and his team wrote that Webb “will prove extremely successful in pushing the cosmic frontier to the brink of the Big Bang.”
“When and how the first galaxies formed remains one of the most intriguing questions,” they write in their article.
NASA’s Jane Rigby, a project scientist at Webb, noted that these galaxies “hid just below the limits of what Hubble could do.”
“They were waiting for us right there,” she told reporters. “So it’s a pleasant surprise that there are many of these galaxies to study.”
The $10 billion observatory — the world’s largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space — is in a solar orbit 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. Full science operations began that summer, and NASA has since released a series of dazzling snapshots of the universe.
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