CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a giant galaxy dating back less than 600 million years from the Big Bang. This suggests that the early universe may have had a stellar fast track that produced these “monsters.”
The new James Webb Space Telescope has discovered even older galaxies dating back to just 300 million years from the beginning of the universe, but what has surprised scientists is the size and maturity of these six apparent giant galaxies. They reported their findings on Wednesday.
Principal Investigator Ivo Labbe and his team at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia expected to find a tiny baby galaxy this close to cosmic dawn.
“Most of the galaxies in this era are still small, and they’re slowly getting bigger over time, but there are some monsters that mature rapidly. It’s unclear why that’s the case, or how it works.”
Each of the six celestial bodies appears to weigh billions of times more than the Sun. In one of them, scientists say, the total mass of all stars could be as much as 100 billion times that of the Sun. They published their findings in the journal Nature.
Labbe and his team said they initially didn’t believe the results were real. No galaxy could be as mature as our own Milky Way at such an early age, and it still needs to be confirmed. The object looked so large and bright that some members of the team thought they had made a mistake.
“We were overwhelmed and unbelievable,” Labe said.
Joel Leja of Pennsylvania State University, who participated in the study, calls them “universe breakers.”
“The revelation that the formation of massive galaxies began very early in the history of the universe upends what many of us considered to be established science,” Leja said in a statement. “It turns out we’ve discovered something so unexpected that it really puts science in trouble. It puts the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.”
These galaxy observations are among the first data sets to come from the $10 billion Webb telescope. It was launched just over a year ago. NASA and the European Space Agency’s Webb are considered successors to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is celebrating its 33rd anniversary since launch.
Unlike Hubble, the larger and more powerful Web can peer into dust clouds with infrared vision and discover previously unseen galaxies. Scientists hope to finally see the first stars and galaxies that formed after the universe began 13.8 billion years ago.
The researchers are awaiting formal confirmation by high-sensitivity spectroscopy, cautioning that for now they will refer to these candidates as massive galaxies. Leja said some objects may not be galaxies, but obscured supermassive black holes.
Some may turn out to be smaller, but “at least some of them are likely to turn out to be galactic giants,” Labbe said. They will.”
One of Webb’s early lessons, he said, is to “let go of expectations and be prepared to be amazed.”
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