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Webb telescope discovers second most distant galaxy in Pandora's cluster

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA’s flagship observatory, has made another fascinating discovery in the depths of space. In a region known as Pandora’s Cluster, or Abell 2744, researchers have identified the second and fourth most distant galaxies ever observed. This monumental finding was achieved using JWST’s advanced capabilities, marking a significant stride in understanding the cosmos.

Peering back in time through Pandora’s Cluster

An international team, spearheaded by researchers from Penn State, utilized JWST to follow up on a deep field image of Pandora’s Cluster. They confirmed the distance of these ancient galaxies, approximately 33 billion light years away, and inferred their properties through new spectroscopic data. This data offers a comprehensive look at the light emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum, providing critical insights into the formation of the earliest galaxies.

Remarkably, these newly discovered galaxies differ from other distant galaxies typically observed as red dots. They are larger, with one resembling a peanut and the other a fluffy ball. These unique appearances challenge our understanding of galactic formation in the early universe.

Bingjie Wang, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, emphasizes the importance of these findings.

“We knew of only three galaxies at this extreme distance before,” Wang says. “These new galaxies reveal the diversity of the early universe, offering a wealth of information to learn from.”

A window to the early universe

The light from these galaxies serves as a time capsule, emitted when the universe was about 330 million years old. Joel Leja is an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. He notes, “The light from these galaxies is ancient, about three times older than the Earth. It’s by their light that we begin to understand the exotic physics of the galaxy near cosmic dawn.”

These galaxies are notably larger than others found at comparable distances. One spans at least 2,000 light years, a size that’s surprising given the assumed compactness of the early universe. This discovery poses questions about star formation and the evolution of galaxies in the nascent cosmos.

From 60,000 to 2 in Pandora’s Cluster

The journey to this discovery began with one of JWST’s first deep field images, which captured 60,000 light sources in Pandora’s Cluster. This region was selected for its gravitational lensing effect, magnifying light from distant galaxies. The UNCOVER team, part of the research initiative, narrowed these sources down to 700 candidates, eventually identifying the two ancient galaxies.

“The process of finding these ancient galaxies is complex,” Leja explains. “Our approach involved using a giant magnifying lens in space, providing a deep, albeit small, window into the cosmos.” This method proved successful, uncovering two galaxies that give new insights into the early universe.

The team also used models to infer the properties of these early galaxies. They found that these galaxies were young, metal-poor, and rapidly forming stars. These properties align with theories of early galactic formation and offer supporting evidence for the Big Bang theory.

The future of galactic discovery

The researchers note that JWST’s powerful infrared instruments could detect even more distant galaxies, pushing the boundaries of our cosmic understanding. However, Leja cautions, “We may have reached the limits of early galactic formation, or perhaps our observation window was just too small.”

This research was part of a proposal submitted to NASA for JWST’s first year of science operations. Leja reflects on the excitement and challenges involved: “We were thrilled when our proposal was accepted. JWST is built for finding these first galaxies, and it’s exhilarating to be part of this groundbreaking work.”

In summary, the discovery of these distant galaxies by the JWST marks a monumental achievement in astronomy. It not only challenges our understanding of galactic formations and sizes in the early universe but also opens new doors for exploring the cosmic dawn.

As we continue to observe and study these ancient light sources, we inch closer to unraveling the mysteries of the universe’s origins and evolution.

The full study was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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