New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope show what may be among the first galaxies ever observed. The images include objects from more than 13 billion years ago, and one offers a much wider field of view than the first Webb Deep Field image, which was released on July 12. The images represent some of the first from a large collaboration of astronomers and other academic researchers working with NASA and global partners to uncover new insights into the universe.
The images were obtained by the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), led by a scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an associate professor from Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Physics and Astronomy, is one of 18 co-investigators from 12 institutions along with more than 100 collaborators from the US and nine other countries. CEERS researchers are studying how some of the first galaxies formed when the universe was less than 5 percent of its current age, during a period known as reionization, and how galaxies have evolved since then.
The team spotted a particularly fascinating object that they estimate is observed as it was only 290 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers refer to this as a redshift of z~14.
The finding has been published on the arXiv preprint server and is expected to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. If the finding is confirmed, it would be one of the first galaxies ever observed, and its presence would indicate that galaxies began forming much earlier than many astronomers previously thought.
The unprecedentedly sharp images reveal a flurry of complex galaxies evolving over time — some gracefully mature wheels, some tiny babies, others full of swirls of do-si-doing neighbors. The images, which took about 24 hours to collect, are of a patch of sky near the handle of Ursa Major, a constellation officially called Ursa Major. This same region of the sky was previously observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, as seen in the Extended Groth Strip.
“These images are exciting because the sheer number of these really high-redshift galaxy candidates is larger than we expected,” Kartaltepe said. “We knew we’d find some, but I don’t think anyone thought we’d find as many as we have. It either means that the universe works a little differently than we thought, or that there are many other sources of contamination and these candidates will turn out to be something else. The in reality it is probably a mixture of both.”
Kartaltepe has several leadership roles in the research, focusing on morphology — measuring the shapes and sizes of galaxies and studying how their structures evolved — and creating and analyzing spectroscopic observations of distant galaxies using the NIRSpec instrument. Three of the astrophysical sciences and technology Ph.D. students — Isabella Cox, Caitlin Rose and Brittany Vanderhoof — participated in the research and worked with the data.
The entire CEERS program will involve more than 60 telescope hours. Much more imaging data will be collected in December, along with spectroscopic measurements of hundreds of distant galaxies.
Kartaltepe is also the principal investigator of COSMOS-Web, the largest General Observer program selected for the first year of JWST. During 218 hours of observation, COSMOS-Web will perform an ambitious survey of half a million galaxies with multi-band, high-resolution near-infrared imaging and an unprecedented 32,000 galaxies in the mid-infrared. JWST is expected to begin collecting the first COSMOS-Web data in December.
Materials provided by Rochester Institute of Technology. Originally written by Luke Auburn. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.