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James Webb captures galaxies that are too old to exist

An international team of astrophysicists has discovered mysterious objects hiding in images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Six potential galaxies were identified that emerged so early in the universe’s history – and are so massive – that they should not be possible under cosmological theory.

Each potential galaxy may have existed at the dawn of the universe roughly 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang. They’re also gigantic, containing almost as many stars as the Milky Way Galaxy. Calculations suggest that there shouldn’t have been enough matter at that time to form so many stars so quickly.

“You just don’t expect the early universe to be able to organize itself that quickly. These galaxies should not have had time to form.” said study co-author Professor Erica Nelson of the University of Colorado Boulder.

The James Webb Telescope was launched in December 2021 and is the most powerful telescope ever sent into space. Last year, four galaxies were spotted that likely coalesced from gas around 350 million years after the Big Bang. Those objects, however, are miniscule in size compared to the new galaxies.

More data is needed to confirm the size and date these galaxies formed. It is also possible that they could be a different object entirely. 

Last year, Professor Nelson and her colleagues from the United States, Australia, Denmark and Spain, formed a team to investigate the data James Webb was sending back to Earth. 

Nelson was peering at a postage stamp-sized section of one image when she spotted a few “fuzzy dots” of light that looked way too bright to be real. “They were so red and so bright. We weren’t expecting to see them.”

In astronomy, red light usually equals old light. The universe has been expanding since the dawn of time. As it expands, galaxies and other celestial objects move farther apart, and the light they emit stretches out. The more the light stretches, the redder it looks to human instruments.

“The Milky Way forms about one to two new stars every year,” said Professor Nelson. “Some of these galaxies would have to be forming hundreds of new stars a year for the entire history of the universe.”

The researchers will continue to collect more information about the newly discovered objects. “If even one of these galaxies is real, it will push against the limits of our understanding of cosmology,” said Professor Nelson.

The research is published in the journal Nature.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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