Space is so hot right now. The unmanned mission Artemis I is en route to lunar orbit, the first in a series of missions designed to return humans to the moon by the end of the decade. A space walk in The International Space Station crashed this week, and that was it streamed live. was Shit hucking at asteroids We can do this. And our new friend, the James Webb Space Telescope, is just doing its thing, quietly overhauling our entire understanding of how the universe works.
The JWST hovers a million miles from Earth and sends back images that make the Hubble look like a real piece of shit. Understandably, it’s Webb’s pictures that grab the headlines the stunning ones– the photos that are particularly beautiful or magnificent and inspire awe. Webb still takes Many of them. But these more artistic images are in a way the telescope that PR operates to justify its existence to the general public. The real science lies in the analysis of the less sexy data: data that doesn’t even lie in the visible spectrum, or in the accurate analysis of relatively unspectacular photos. Yesterday’s big news comes from these everyday images.
I realize I risk undercutting that, so: Of course These images are spectacular even if they aren’t pillars of creation. And what they show—that which is blown up in Figure 2, bottom center—is mind-melting superlatives. It’s the galaxy GLASS-z12, and it’s thought to be 13.45 billion years old, or just 350 million years after the universe formed in the Big Bang. It’s the most distant starlight we’ve ever seen.
But it’s not the galaxy’s existence that gets scientists so excited — we knew galaxies would exist even then, and we knew the JWST’s superior imaging would reveal them. What was unexpected was how easy it was to find.
“Based on all the predictions, we thought we would have to search a much larger volume of space to find such galaxies,” said Marco Castellano of the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, who headed you from two Research papers published in Thursday The Letters of the Astrophysical Journal. Scientists had a model, based on current knowledge, of how many of these bright, fully formed galaxies would be out there in the very early days of the Universe. This model predicted that it would take a patch of sky about 10 times larger than what Webb captured to find them. Instead, Webb quickly surveyed two such galaxies that scientists discovered within days of releasing the data for study.
What this implies that our models were wrong, and that bright, populous galaxies may have formed faster and more frequently after the end of the stellar dark age — about 100 million years after the Big Bang, when conditions in the early Universe finally allowed gravitational stars to begin — than we did had ever imagined.
We were wrong! That is so cool! Learning that we were wrong is sort of the whole point of science! Knowing that our models and predictions were inaccurate allows us to create new ones to better explain the observations and brings us ever closer to being right. Science is iterative, and these small discoveries, rather than the big, splashy pictures, are helping us write and rewrite the early history of our universe.
“These observations just make your head explode” said Paola Santini, and co-author of the Castellano et al. Paper. “This is a whole new chapter in astronomy. It’s like an archaeological dig and suddenly you find a lost city or something you didn’t know about. It’s just stunning.”
These two new, young galaxies are already making some fascinating observations. Because they are much brighter than we expected, and brighter than anything else we have closer to Earth. “Their extreme brightness is a real mystery,” says Pascal Oesch, co-author of the second paper published today. But there is an attractive possibility. It is hypothesized that stars in the very early Universe would have consisted only of hydrogen and helium simply because they had not yet had time to produce heavier elements through nuclear fusion. These so-called Population III stars would be incredibly hot and incredibly bright, and while there have long been theories about them, they have never been observed. Until maybe now.
This is hot shit in every way. Thanks Webb