JWST’s Newfound Galaxies Are the Oldest Ever Seen (2023)

In a cosmological matchup of “Are they or aren’t they?” the contest is firmly in the former’s favor—10 to one, at last count. The question is one of profound importance: Are the galaxies the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is seeing in the early universe really as astonishingly remote as we think they are? So far, the answer is a resounding yes. “The vast majority of these galaxies are being confirmed,” says Steven Finkelstein, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin. “It means that everything we saw last summer, that maybe the universe was very proficient at forming stars very early, is going to stand.”

The summer of 2022 saw JWST unleash a torrent of discoveries. After a launch in December 2021 and more than half a year of commissioning, JWST fully switched on in July 2022. Almost immediately thereafter, its unprecedented infrared sensitivity revealed the faint glows of galaxies apparently from the far-distant universe that had formed just hundreds of millions of years after the big bang. Astronomers had expected such landmark results to emerge more gradually. “There was an explosion of data,” Finkelstein says.

Those early results came about so quickly because researchers used a clever shortcut to estimate galactic distances. Astronomers usually pin down cosmic coordinates via precisely measuring redshift, a stretching of a galaxy’s light toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum as a result of the universe’s expansion. But this requires the act of assembling and analyzing a galaxy’s spectrum—a time-consuming and subtle process known as spectroscopy. JWST’s firehose of discovery was instead powered by cruder, faster photometry-based techniques that essentially use obvious variations in galaxies’ brightness to estimate their redshift.

Thus, while the photometric results came thick and fast last summer, the spectroscopic results have only just begun trickling out. Already, though, with spectra-based distances in hand from only about a dozen candidates, researchers are finding that most measurements are matching the early photometric results. The latest, published in Nature Astronomy last week, confirm earlier distance estimates for four more galaxies identified by the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES). “We’ve been waiting decades for this,” says Emma Curtis-Lake of the University of Hertfordshire in England, who led the spectroscopic results study. “To be able to do it within the first few months of this telescope was just incredible.”

Of the four, the most distant is one with the somewhat unwieldy name JADES-GS-z13-0. It has a redshift value of 13.2, meaning we are seeing the galaxy as it appeared just 320 million years after the big bang. That high redshift makes JADES-GS-z13-0 the most distant currently known in the universe—a record that JWST seems set to imminently break again but one that highlights why astronomers are so thrilled. We now know for certain we are probing an era of the universe no human has ever laid eyes on before. “It’s astonishing,” says Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. This galaxy, he evocatively notes, is only slightly younger from our perspective than the total time sharks have existed on Earth—some 300 million years. “You go from nothing to these fully formed galaxies in the blink of an eye,” van Dokkum says.

Not all high-redshift candidate galaxies have been so lucky, however, which highlights astronomers’ early caution. In July another survey called the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), led by Finkelstein, spied a possible galaxy at a redshift of 16.4, just 240 million years after the big bang. Subsequent spectroscopy has shown that deduction was wrong, as revealed in late March in research led by Pablo Haro, an astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab. The galaxy is actually a dusty imposter located at a redshift of 4.9, a still impressive but not at all record-breaking 1.2 billion years after the big bang. High levels of star formation are thought to have muddled early photometric analysis. “We can be easily fooled by contamination,” says Callum Donnan of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a co-author on the work. “A high-redshift galaxy can be mimicked by a lower-redshift galaxy with different features.”

The good news is that this particular galaxy appears to be a “unique case,” Donnan says. The same study was able to confirm that two other candidate galaxies did not have the same problem. One of these is Maisie’s galaxy, which is seen at a redshift of 11.4, about 400 million years after the big bang, and was named for Finkelstein’s daughter. “She was very excited when I told her it was real,” Finkelstein says.

Now that such galaxies are being confirmed, their scientific implications can be more fully explored. These galaxies are small, many times tinier than the Milky Way. But some appear extremely bright and massive and have high star formation rates similar to that of our galaxy, which forms roughly one new star every year. While the galaxies don’t yet pose problems for leading models of cosmology, they suggest galactic formation began earlier and proceeded faster than expected in the universe, which theorists had previously predicted began churning out galaxies at the ripe age of one billion years after the big bang.

“We’re seeing a rise of massive galaxies faster than we thought previously,” says Fabio Pacucci of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The ages of some of these early galaxies are estimated at just tens of millions of years. This could have implications for large structures of dark matter known as halos that sculpted early galaxies and for the nature of dark matter particles themselves. “One of the big open questions is: What is dark matter?” says Sandro Tacchella of the University of Cambridge. “The first generation of galaxies is a sensitive probe for different dark matter models.”

Some problematic—and potentially model-busting—early-universe candidate galaxies still remain. First among them may be a class of galaxies identified by Ivo Labbé of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues. The team found galaxies with billions of solar masses, comparable in weight to the Milky Way, from just an estimated 750 million years after the big bang. These galaxies are 10 to 100 times bigger than galaxies previously seen in this era and are packed into structures 30 times smaller than the Milky Way. “They’re small, but they’re massive,” says Labbé, who says JWST is continuing to find similar galaxies essentially anywhere it looks deeply in the sky. For now the galaxies have only been studied by photometry, with spectroscopic analysis planned for July. But the photometric success of other JWST results so far suggests Labbé and his colleagues’ preliminary analysis is correct. “The most extreme galaxies there still seem to pose a problem,” says Michael Boylan-Kolchin of the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the JWST observations discussed in this article. “Some of these systems would have to be forming stars 1,000 times as fast as the Milky Way. The question is: Is that an impossibly high amount of star formation?”

The field continues to change rapidly. An ongoing survey called COSMOS-Webb is expected to deliver many more high-redshift candidates. “Our estimates in the proposal were [to find galaxies] up to a redshift of 10 or so,” says Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who leads the program. “But those numbers might have been too pessimistic.” Many other astronomers have submitted requests for additional spare time on the telescope to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which runs the observatory. More still have submitted proposals for the telescope’s second year of scheduled scientific observations, called Cycle 2, which begins in July.

Some worry the field is moving too fast. While many of JWST’s data, about 80 percent, have a proprietary window of 12 months in which the researchers responsible have exclusive access to their own observations, the rest are open-access. This means that when observations are taken, they are immediately accessible to the public, and anyone can use them. Before Haro and his colleagues had published their analysis of the redshift 16.4 galaxy on the preprint server arXiv.org in late March, their open-access work had already been scooped by astronomers on Twitter. “I wanted to do just an extremely simple test,” says Gabriel Brammer of the University of Copenhagen, who posted some of the early results. “The team did a much more detailed analysis. But you can see it instantly if you know where to look.”

Not everyone is happy with such easy access. “You have postdocs who have spent years of their life working on this and making these observations possible,” says Rebecca Larson of U.T. Austin, a co-author of Haro’s paper and part of the CEERS team. “Then our data comes out, and it’s public, and people are racing us to the results. We are working on it and also being asked to provide other input for the community. Then other people will come in and put up papers. It’s really frustrating to watch happen.” It is unclear how to resolve the tensions at the moment. “It’d be better if there were some more concrete rules,” says Tom Bakx of Nagoya University in Japan, who was not involved in the research. “Imagine if you have small kids, then it’s simply not possible to spend the entire night calibrating the data. There’s a little bit of a power imbalance. It’s very open competition.”

More positively, the situation appears to have cooled somewhat since the frenetic early weeks of JWST’s operation. Now astronomers are doing what they long dreamed of—gaining their first certain glimpses into an epoch of the universe never studied before. Who knows how much further we will see. “Maybe galaxy formation started already at a redshift of 20,” van Dokkum says, referring to a time a mere 180 million years after the big bang, an epoch scarcely fathomable prior to JWST. If the telescope is showing us anything, however, it’s to expect the unexpected.


JWST’s Newfound Galaxies Are the Oldest Ever Seen (1)

    Jonathan O'Callaghan is a freelance journalist covering commercial spaceflight, space exploration and astrophysics. Follow him on Twitter @Astro_JonnyCredit: Nick Higgins

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    What is the oldest observed galaxy? ›

    Stephane Charlot, a researcher at the Astrophysics Institute of Paris and co-author of the two new studies, told AFP that the farthest galaxy—called JADES-GS-z13-0—formed 320 million years after the Big Bang. That is the greatest distance ever observed by astronomers, he said.

    How old are the James Webb galaxies? ›

    The James Webb Space Telescope just looked back in time a whopping 13.4 billion years. You read that right. And doing so allowed scientists to find the earliest galaxies humanity has ever seen (so far, that is). These galaxies, containing countless stars, were created soon after the universe was born.

    Did the James Webb telescope finds two of the oldest and most distant galaxies ever seen? ›

    Observing the universe with the James Webb Space Telescope

    The galaxy, called GLASS-z12, and another galaxy formed about 450 million years after the big bang, were found over the summer, shortly after the powerful space observatory began its infrared observations of the cosmos.

    Have new galaxies been discovered by JWST? ›

    Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an international team of astronomers has discovered a new quiescent galaxy. The galaxy, designated JADES-GS+53.15508-27.80178, was found at a high redshift and has a relatively low mass. The finding is reported in a paper published February 27 on the pre-print server arXiv.

    What is the oldest thing we can see in space? ›

    Astronomers have discovered what may be the oldest and most distant galaxy ever observed. The galaxy, called HD1, dates from a bit more than 300 million years after the Big Bang that marked the origin of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, researchers said on Thursday.

    What is the oldest thing we can observe in the universe? ›

    Methuselah: The oldest star in the universe | Space.

    What is the oldest image from James Webb? ›

    Webb's First Deep Field is the first operational image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. The deep-field photograph, which covers a tiny area of sky visible from the Southern Hemisphere, is centered on SMACS 0723, a galaxy cluster in the constellation of Volans.

    How far back can James Webb look? ›

    Besides looking farther across space than any observatory before it, the James Webb Space Telescope has another trick up its mirrors: It can look further back in time than any other telescope, observing distant stars and galaxies as they appeared 13.5 billion years ago, not long after the beginning of the universe as ...

    How old are the images from Webb? ›

    The faintest objects in this Webb image are some 13.1 billion years old, Rigby said.

    What is the farthest galaxy detected by Webb? ›

    The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has broken yet another record, with astronomers looking at data from the Hubble Space Telescope's successor and finding the most distant galaxy ever confirmed, to be known as JADES-GS-z13-0.

    What is the furthest humans have seen? ›

    So the furthest out we can see is about 46.5 billion light years away, which is crazy, but it also means you can look back into the past and try to figure out how the universe formed, which again, is what cosmologists do.

    What is the farthest humans have seen? ›

    Distance Information

    Some of the most newly detected objects may be over 13 billion light years away, as derived from a standard model of the Universe.

    Will James Webb be able to see planets in other galaxies? ›

    Webb will observe Mars and the giant planets, minor planets like Pluto and Eris - and even the small bodies in our solar system: asteroids, comets, and Kuiper Belt Objects.

    Could the universe be older than we think? ›

    An analysis of 13.5 thousand million-year-old X-rays, captured by ESA's XMM-Newton satellite, has shown that either the Universe may be older than astronomers had thought or that mysterious, undiscovered 'iron factories' litter the early Universe.

    Can James Webb see Andromeda Galaxy? ›

    The Andromeda Galaxy at 2.5-million light-years from Earth is too distant for Webb to discern individual planets. To analyze exoplanets' atmospheres, scientists use the transit method . It spectrum analyzes the starlight passing through the planet's atmosphere as it orbits between its star and the telescope.

    What is the rarest thing to see in space? ›

    Only 1-in-10,000 galaxies fall into the rarest category of all: ring galaxies.

    How far back into the universe can we see? ›

    We can see objects up to 46.1 billion light-years away precisely because of the expanding universe. No matter how much time passes, there will forever be limits on the objects we can observe and the objects that we can potentially reach.

    Why do humans not age in space? ›

    So depending on our position and speed, time can appear to move faster or slower to us relative to others in a different part of space-time. And for astronauts on the International Space Station, that means they get to age just a tiny bit slower than people on Earth. That's because of time-dilation effects.

    What is the most powerful thing in the universe? ›

    These explosions generate beams of high-energy radiation, called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which are considered by astronomers to be the most powerful thing in the universe. What's more, these GRBs could be killing our chances of ever discovering life on other planets.

    Is there an object older than the universe? ›

    HD 140283 (also known as the Methuselah star) is a metal-poor subgiant star about 190 light years away from the Earth in the constellation Libra, near the boundary with Ophiuchus in the Milky Way Galaxy. Its apparent magnitude is 7.205, so it can be seen with binoculars. It is one of the oldest stars known.

    Are the James Webb images real? ›

    Scientists have to make adjustments to turn JWST's raw data into something human eyes can appreciate, but its photos are “real,” says Alyssa Pagan, science visuals developer for the Space Telescope Science Institute.

    What is the farthest image taken by James Webb? ›

    Scientists using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have imaged the most distant star ever observed thanks to a a ripple in spacetime that creates extreme magnification. It's currently 28 billion light-years away and its light has traveled 12.9 billion years into JWST's optics.

    How far away was James Webb seen? ›

    The distance of James Webb Space Telescope from Earth is currently 1,297,240 kilometers, equivalent to 0.008672 Astronomical Units.

    Can Webb see back in time? ›

    Webb is able to see what the universe looked like around a quarter of a billion years (possibly back to 100 million years) after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies started to form.

    How many light years can James Webb see? ›

    Webb has the capacity to look 13.6 billion light years distant—which will be the farthest we've ever seen into space. This image of the galactic cluster known as SMACS 0723 contains thousands of galaxies, some of which are as far away as 13.1 billion light years. (A single light year is just under 6 trillion miles.)

    How many galaxies does James Webb have? ›

    Now, the James Webb Space Telescope has taken deep field observations to the next level with its COSMOS-Web survey, revealing 25,000 galaxies in just six pictures, the first from this new survey.

    Can James Webb see a black hole? ›

    Webb pierced through the shroud of dust surrounding the nucleus to reveal hot gas near the active black hole and measure the velocity of bright outflows. The telescope saw these outflows driven by the black hole in a level of detail never seen before.

    What is the oldest galaxy photographed? ›

    GN-z11 superimposed on an image from the GOODS-North survey
    Observation data (J2000 epoch)
    ConstellationUrsa Major
    Right ascension12h 36m 25.46s
    12 more rows

    How many galaxies are there? ›

    One such estimate says that there are between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Other astronomers have tried to estimate the number of 'missed' galaxies in previous studies and come up with a total number of 2 trillion galaxies in the universe.

    What is the farthest known galaxy from Earth? ›

    Named HD1, the galaxy candidate is some 13.5 billion light-years away and is described today in The Astrophysical Journal . In an accompanying paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters , scientists have begun to speculate exactly what the galaxy is.

    What is the farthest thing in the universe? ›

    And when you switch on your microwave telescopes, you can see the farthest – and oldest – object in the universe. It's called the cosmic microwave background, and it completely soaks the entire cosmos. It was formed when our universe was a mere 380,000 years old.

    What is the farthest visible object from Earth? ›

    The farthest object in space that you can see with only your eyes in the night sky is the Andromeda Galaxy.

    How far back could humans survive on Earth? ›

    If we used a time machine to travel back to a prehistoric period, the earliest we could survive would be the Cambrian (around 541 million years ago). Any earlier than that and there wouldn't have been enough oxygen in the air to breathe.

    How far have humans gone from Earth? ›

    Farthest away

    In April 1970, the crew of NASA's Apollo 13 mission swung around the far side of the moon at an altitude of 158 miles (254 km), putting them 248,655 miles (400,171 km) away from Earth. It's the farthest our species has ever been from our home planet.

    How far has human gone in the Earth? ›

    The deepest penetration of the Earth's surface is the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia at 40,230 feet.

    Can James Webb look at Mars? ›

    Scientists designed the James Webb Space Telescope to be able to detect faint light from distant parts of the universe. But with a few careful adjustments, the high-tech telescope was recently able to turn its attention toward a much closer and brighter object in the night sky: Mars.

    Can Webb see Mars? ›

    The James Webb Space Telescope has used its powerful instruments to get a closer look at our planetary neighbour Mars. The space observatory has been able to capture images of the red planet that can be used to study short-term phenomena such as dust storms, weather patterns and seasonal changes.

    How old will the universe be before it dies? ›

    22 billion years in the future is the earliest possible end of the Universe in the Big Rip scenario, assuming a model of dark energy with w = −1.5. False vacuum decay may occur in 20 to 30 billion years if the Higgs field is metastable.

    How do they know the universe is 13.7 billion years old? ›

    We do not know the exact age of the universe, but we believe that it is around 13 billion years - give or take a few billion. Astronomers estimate the age of the universe in two ways: (a) by looking for the oldest stars; and (b) by measuring the rate of expansion of the universe and extrapolating back to the Big Bang.

    What is the lifespan of universe? ›

    Today this is largely carried out in the context of the ΛCDM model, where the universe is assumed to contain normal (baryonic) matter, cold dark matter, radiation (including both photons and neutrinos), and a cosmological constant. and. , are the most important. 14.5 billion years.

    Can James Webb see Milky Way? ›

    James Webb telescope captures a Milky Way-like galaxy a billion light-years away. The image reveals a grandiose spiral star system akin to our own. Astronomers at the European Space Agency (ESA) used the James Webb Space Telescope to capture an image of a spiral galaxy that resembles our home, the Milky Way.

    Can Hubble see Andromeda? ›

    The largest NASA Hubble Space Telescope image ever assembled, this sweeping bird's-eye view of a portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is the sharpest large composite image ever taken of our galactic next-door neighbor.

    Is there a telescope powerful enough to see the Andromeda Galaxy? ›

    The Hubble Space Telescope easily resolves millions of individual stars in an outer region of the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31.

    How old is the universe in James Webb Space Telescope? ›

    Webb is a powerful time machine with infrared vision that is peering back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.

    How old is the Hubble galaxies? ›

    It represents 16 years of observations, 265,000 galaxies, and 13.3 billion years, making it the largest collection of galaxies documented by Hubble. The role of exploring the early universe further will fall to the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to launch in late 2021.

    How many light-years is James Webb away? ›

    Webb has the capacity to look 13.6 billion light years distant—which will be the farthest we've ever seen into space.

    How old is the universe according to the Hubble telescope? ›

    The Hubble Space Telescope measurements helped to determine that the age of the Universe is 13.8 billion years. Who really discovered Hubble's Law?

    How many years back can the James Webb telescope see? ›

    How far back will Webb see? Webb is able to see what the universe looked like around a quarter of a billion years (possibly back to 100 million years) after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies started to form.

    Did Webb find galaxies too big to exist? ›

    Webb Telescope Finds Evidence of Massive Galaxies That Defy Theories of the Early Universe. Astronomers have identified what appear to be six massive galaxies from the infancy of the universe. The objects are so massive, that if confirmed, they could change how we think of the origins of galaxies.

    Are there 6 galaxies older than the universe? ›

    Six massive ancient galaxies, which astronomers are calling "universe breakers" appear to have been discovered, which may upend existing theories of cosmology. The galaxies, detected by the £8.3bn James Webb telescope, are believed to date back to within around 600 million years of the Big Bang.

    What is the oldest galaxy that Hubble can see? ›

    Before this, the oldest galaxy astronomers had ever seen was GNz-11, which was spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2015. The 'z factor' in the names of these galaxies (GN-z11 and GLASS-z13) represents how much their light has been redshifted. In the case of z=11, we see the galaxy as it was 13.4 billion years ago.

    How many galaxies did we think there were before Hubble? ›

    This led to an estimate that the observable universe contained about 200 billion galaxies. The new research shows that this estimate is at least 10 times too low.

    Can the Hubble see past our galaxy? ›

    How far can the Hubble Telescope see? The furthest galaxy ever observed by the Hubble telescope is the GN-z11 galaxy, about 13.4 billion light-years away.

    Can James Webb see the Milky Way? ›

    James Webb telescope captures a Milky Way-like galaxy a billion light-years away. The image reveals a grandiose spiral star system akin to our own. Astronomers at the European Space Agency (ESA) used the James Webb Space Telescope to capture an image of a spiral galaxy that resembles our home, the Milky Way.

    What is the farthest object seen by James Webb? ›

    The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has broken yet another record, with astronomers looking at data from the Hubble Space Telescope's successor and finding the most distant galaxy ever confirmed, to be known as JADES-GS-z13-0.

    What farthest star did Webb just see ever? ›

    Scientists using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have imaged the most distant star ever observed thanks to a a ripple in spacetime that creates extreme magnification. It's currently 28 billion light-years away and its light has traveled 12.9 billion years into JWST's optics.


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