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 provides a much wider field of view than Webb’s First Deep Field Image, which was released on July 12. The images represent some of the first from a major collaboration of astronomers and other academic researchers joining NASA and global partners to uncover new insights about the universe.
The images were taken 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 the School of Physics and Astronomy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, 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 earliest galaxies formed when the universe was less than 5 percent of its current age, during a period known as reionization, and how galaxies evolved between then and today.
The team has identified a particularly exciting object that they estimate is being observed since it was only 290 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers refer to this as an ez~14 redshift.
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.
The incredibly sharp images reveal a host of complex galaxies that evolve over time — some elegantly mature pinwheels, others dirty little, still others murky spins of their neighbors doing the will-like. 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 named the Big Dipper. The same area of the sky was previously observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, as seen in the Extended Groth Belt.
“These images are exciting because the sheer number of these true 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. That either means the universe works a little differently than we thought or there are many other contaminating sources and these candidates will turn out to be something else. The reality is probably a mixture of the two.”
Kartaltepe has multiple leadership roles in the survey, focusing on morphology — measuring the shapes and sizes of galaxies and studying how their structures evolved — and establishing and analyzing spectroscopic observations of distant galaxies using the NIRSpec instrument. Three of her astrophysical sciences and technology Ph.D. students — Isabella Cox, Caitlin Rose and Brittany Vanderhoof — participated in the survey 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 General Observer program selected for the first year of JWST. Over the course of 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 data for COSMOS-Web in December.
Materials provided by Rochester Institute of Technology. Originally written by Luke Auburn. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.