CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Astronomers have detected what appear to be massive galaxies dating back about 600 million years from the Big Bang, indicating that the early universe may have had a fast stellar trajectory that produced these “monsters.”
While the new James Webb telescope has spotted older galaxies, dating back only 300 million years from the beginning of the universe, it is the size and maturity of these apparent six massive galaxies that has astounded scientists. They reported their findings Wednesday.
Principal investigator Ivo Lappi of Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology and his team expected to find small galaxies close to the dawn of the universe – not these massive galaxies.
“While most galaxies at this age are still young and gradually expanding over time,” he said in an email, “there are a few monsters that are accelerating to mature. Why this is the case or how this might work is unknown.”
Each of the six objects seems to weigh billions of times more than our sun. In one, the combined weight of all its stars may be up to 100 billion times more massive than our sun, according to scientists, who Publish their findings in the journal Nature.
However, these galaxies are believed to be very compact, confining as many stars as our own Milky Way, but in a relatively small slice of space, according to Lapp.
Lappi said he and his team didn’t think the results were real at first — that there can be no galaxies as mature as the Milky Way so early — and they still need confirmation. The objects looked so big and bright that some of the team thought they had made a mistake.
“We were dumbfounded, kind of suspicious,” said Labey.
Joel Lega of Penn State University, who was involved in the study, called them “universe breakers.”
“The revelation that the formation of massive galaxies began very early in the history of the universe upends what many of us thought was established science,” Lega said in a statement. “It turns out that we have found something so unexpected that it creates problems for science. It calls into question the whole picture of early galaxy formation.”
These galaxy observations were among the first set of data to come from the $10 billion Webb Telescope, It was launched just over a year ago. NASA and ESA Webb are the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is marking the 33rd anniversary of its launch.
Unlike Hubble, the larger and more powerful the Web can navigate through clouds of dust with its infrared vision and discover galaxies that have never been seen before. Scientists hope to eventually spot the first stars and galaxies that formed after the creation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago.
Still awaiting official confirmation through sensitive spectroscopy, the researchers are keen to name these massive galaxies as candidates for now. It’s possible, Lega said, that some of the objects may not be galaxies, but have obscured supermassive black holes.
While some may be smaller, “the odds are good that at least some of them will turn out to be” galactic giants, Lapp said. Next year will tell.
One of the early lessons from Webb, he said, was to “let go of your expectations and prepare to be surprised”.
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