New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope show what may be among the earliest 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 of a major collaboration of astronomers and other academic researchers teaming up with NASA and global partners to reveal new insights into the universe.
The images were taken by the Space Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), led by a scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Ceyhan Kartaltepe, an associate professor in 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 United States and nine other countries. CEERS researchers are studying how some of the earliest 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 between then and now .
The team has identified one particularly exciting object that they believe has been observed since it was only 290 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers call this a redshift of z~14.
The finding has been published on the arXiv preprint server and is awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed journal. If the discovery is confirmed, it would be one of the earliest galaxies ever observed, and its presence would indicate that galaxies began forming much earlier than many astronomers previously thought.
Unprecedentedly sharp images reveal a wave of complex galaxies evolving over time — some elegantly mature pinwheels, others fluffy toddlers, others transparent swirls of do-it-yourself neighbors. The images, which took about 24 hours to collect, are of a part of the sky near the handle of Ursa Major, a constellation officially called the Big Dipper. This same area 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.” This either means the universe works a little differently than we thought, or there are many other sources of contamination and these candidates will turn out to be something else. The reality is probably a combination of both.”
Kartaltepe has multiple leading roles in the study, focusing on morphology – measuring the shapes and sizes of galaxies and studying how their structures have evolved – and creating and analyzing spectroscopic observations of distant galaxies using the NIRSpec instrument. Three of her Ph.D.s are in astrophysical sciences and technology. students—Isabella Cox, Caitlin Rose, and Brittany Vanderhoof—participated in the study and worked with the data.
The entire CEERS program will involve more than 60 hours of telescope time. 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 common observer program selected for the first year of JWST. Over 218 observing hours, COSMOS-Web will conduct an ambitious survey of half a million galaxies with high-resolution multiband images in the near-infrared 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. Original written by Luke Auburn. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.