The Webb Telescope will take a look at the early universe
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The James Webb Space Telescope gave astronomers a glimpse of the early universe in a new image released Wednesday.
The powerful space observatory is capable of detecting the faint light of incredibly distant galaxies, shining in infrared light at wavelengths invisible to the human eye. The web is an important tool that astronomers can use to better understand how galaxies formed and evolved in the early days of the universe.
The telescope captured a picture of a galaxy cluster called MACS0647, as well as the distant galaxy MACS0647-JD. The cluster appears as an amazing group of galaxies that shine like precious gems against the dark background of space.
A distant galaxy is visible due to a certain type of observational phenomenon associated with the cluster. This phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, occurs when foreground galaxies act as a magnifying glass for distant objects behind them.
Small boxes were used to identify the galaxy MACS0647-JD and detailed images of the galaxy are aligned on the right side of the image. The cluster tripled the galaxy, magnified it, and caused the image to appear in three separate locations. Each box on the right shows a different part of the galaxy.
Astronomer Dan Ko discovered MACS0647-JD 10 years ago using the Hubble Space Telescope. The new Webb image of the galaxy is surprising—with two notable features.
“With Hubble, it was just a pale, red dot. We can tell it’s really small, just a tiny galaxy from the first 400 million years of the universe,” said Ko, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute of the European Space Agency and the Association of Universities for Astronomical Research. A NASA release.
“Now we’re looking with Webb and we can solve TWO objects! We are actively debating whether these are two galaxies or two star clusters within a galaxy. We don’t know, but these are questions that Webb will help us answer.”
The two objects differ in color, one more blue and the other more red. Colors represent different gases. The blue object shows the formation of young stars, while the red object is dusty and older. Astronomers believe that the two objects in the galaxy image may foretell the merger of two galaxies.
“It’s very interesting that we see two structures in such a small system,” said Tiger Yu-Yang Xiao, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University. “We may be witnessing the merger of galaxies in the earliest universe. If this is the furthest unification I’ve ever had, I’ll be really happy!”
Research team a paper about the discovery of a potential merger, but like most of Webb’s first observations since it began scientific operations in July, the results have yet to go through the peer review process. The team also plans to study MACS0647-JD in detail in January.
Each Webb observation reveals previously hidden and unseen aspects of the universe, as the telescope is able to spy faint infrared rays through thick interstellar dust. Astronomers are excited about the telescope’s discovery potential, as the observatory began its 20-year mission just a few months ago.
“Until now, we have not been able to study galaxies in the early universe in detail. We only had dozens of them before Webb,” said Rebecca Larson, a National Science Foundation fellow and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. “Studying them helps us understand how they evolved into the galaxies we live in today. Also, how the universe has evolved over time.”
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