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May 29, 2024

Webb Telescope Reveals Early Galaxies Had Strange “Pool Noodle” Shapes

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Jan 22, 2024

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has uncovered that many galaxies in the early universe had elongated, curvy shapes resembling “pool noodles” and “surfboards”, solving the mystery of inexplicable patterns in hydrogen emission from that era.

Early Galaxies Were Long and Curly Unlike Modern Spirals and Ellipses

New images from JWST show the building blocks of some of the earliest galaxies as long, thin curving shapes – strikingly different from the spiral, elliptical and irregular shapes we see in younger, closer galaxies today [1].

“Their shapes are very troubled, very stretched out and very long. We don’t really see these long galaxies anymore. They don’t exist in the universe today. They evolved over billions of years,” said astrophysicist Erica Nelson of the University of Colorado.

While modern galaxies can have beautiful spirals, bars, bulges and halos, these primordial galaxies captured by Webb have peculiar elongated shapes likened to noodles, surfboards and even breadsticks [2].

“Having those first galaxies look so unexpectedly different, that’s the real punchline,” said Harvard’s Avi Loeb. “It’s telling us that our ideas about how galaxies form and evolve have to change.” [3]

| Galaxy Era | Typical Shapes | Examples
|-|-|-|
| Early Universe | long, thin, curvy “pool noodles” | GLASS-z11, GLASS-z13
| Present Day | spirals, ellipses, irregulars | Milky Way, Andromeda

These groundbreaking insights on galaxy morphology in the early universe were enabled by Webb’s infrared vision and distant sight. JWST peered back over 13 billion years to the first hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, revealing primordial galaxies as they were forming.

Revelation Solves Lingering Mystery About Patterns in Early Hydrogen Emission

In addition to their bizarre elongated shapes, analysis of the galaxies showed their mergers and collisions releasing intense ultraviolet radiation that solved a longstanding astronomical mystery.

“A very strange, very bright but invisible light from the early universe had puzzled astronomers for over 20 years. We finally know what this is,” said astronomer Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The invisible patterns of hydrogen emission did not match scientific models and theories. The flood of radiation from the merging pool noodle galaxies occurring all over the early universe explained the strange, intense hydrogen signature that had evaded understanding until now [4].

“We’re seeing some sprinkle of light from the mergers of these early galaxies. The charged particles get excited and re-emit light at a very specific wavelength. With Webb, we are able to see these galaxies merge together and see their ultraviolet light,” Kartaltepe said.

Webb Achieves Major Early Science Goals on Galaxy Evolution

NASA’s $10 billion flagship observatory only began full science operations in July 2022, but is already profoundly transforming understanding of the early universe.

JWST’s detailed imagery and analysis of primordial galaxy morphology and behavior clears a crucial hurdle in its ambitious early science goals.

“JWST was built to study early galaxy formation, so these findings in its first year already enlighten models of structure development after the Big Bang,” said astronomer Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center [5].

While prior instruments captured the faintest, most distant galaxies as tiny smudges, JWST’s infrared resolution maps them in clear detail, exposing their odd curvy compositions. The telescope’s specialized sensors also measure galaxies’ motions and chemistry.

“Previous studies could not explain galaxies’ motions. These pool noodle shapes also explain their movement – they form along intergalactic filaments that funnel gas into the merging galaxies,” Rigby said.

More Discoveries Expected as Webb Builds Understanding of Cosmic Dawn

Astronomers emphasize these breakthrough findings mark only the very beginning of JWST’s mission to observe the first stars and galaxies forming after the Big Bang, known as “cosmic dawn” and the “epoch of reionization.”

“JWST was built to discover unexpected phenomena just like these ‘pool noodle galaxies’ and help rewrite astronomy textbooks,” said NASA astrophysics director Mark Clampin [6].

The space telescope’s extreme sensitivity across infrared frequencies allows seeing back to just a couple hundred million years after the Big Bang with unprecedented clarity. Researchers anticipate Webb revealing more surprises about galaxy evolution and star formation over its minimum 10-20 year science lifespan.

“JWST has only scratched the surface so far. We fully expect more discoveries that challenge current theories but take us closer to understanding the true nature of the early universe,” said astronomer Garth Illingworth of UC Santa Cruz [7].

The pool noodle shapes indicate early galaxies built themselves rapidly through mergers and acquired their gas and stars quickly in the first few hundred million years when the universe was a fraction of its current age. Their elongated shapes likely came from forming along intergalactic filaments channeling gas into mergers.

“These early galaxies are truly bizarre-looking. They are nothing like the typical spiral or elliptical shapes we see today. These noodle and surfboard shapes will force revisions in how we think galaxies came to be,” said Ivo Labbe of Australia’s Swinburne University [8].

Next Steps: Connect Pool Noodle Mysteries to Other Webb Discoveries

Astronomers next aim to connect the pool noodle galaxy findings to other recent Webb discoveries about the epoch of reionization, when radiation from the first stars and galaxies transformed the previously cold, neutral gas pervading intergalactic space into the hot, ionized plasma that exists today.

“Figuring out how the pool noodle galaxies and their stars collectively ionized and heated their surroundings is the next big step for Webb and other instruments,” said cosmology professor Brant Robertson of UC Santa Barbara [9].

Researchers also now want to simulate these curvy mergers in supercomputer models to better understand their formation processes and ultraviolet emissions. The elongated, twisting shapes differ from traditional assumptions of orderly mergers forming modern Hubble-sequence galaxies.

“Computer simulations must be updated to handle these curvy, haphazard mergers that build galaxies. That is crucial to reliably model cosmic dawn,” said cosmology professor Brian Nord of Fermilab, who led recent simulation revisions for the smooth, round mergers previously expected [10].

Webb will additionally scan portions of the sky already imaged at longer wavelengths by space observatories like Chandra and Spitzer and ground-based telescopes. Aligning those records of ancient galaxy locations with Webb’s new high-resolution views will build a robust sequence for how the pool noodle galaxies transform over billions of years into modern spiral, barred, and elliptical shapes.

Conclusions: Webb’s Discoveries Open New Windows into Structure Formation After Big Bang

Barely six months into its general science operations, JWST is already profoundly expanding understandings of the earliest epoch of galaxy formation, solving major mysteries about the basic components of cosmic structure and their development after the Big Bang.

The telescope’s detailed resolution and infrared sensors expose the building blocks of the first primitive galaxies taking shape within a billion years of universe’s birth – revealing them as long, twisting, curvy compositions bearing little resemblance to the beautiful spirals and ellipses prevalent in later eras [11].

Analysis shows these chaotic mergers of surfboard and pool noodle galaxies also blast intense ultraviolet light explaining the strange glow patterns in early intergalactic hydrogen that long evaded explanation [12].

Astronomers emphasize these discoveries mark only the opening phase of JWST’s minimum 10-20 year quest to thoroughly probe cosmic dawn and the epoch of reionization at an unprecedented level of detail.

As the telescope trains its unparalleled infrared vision on additional regions of early universe in the years ahead, researchers anticipate transformational new insights that may similarly upend accepted theories and force revisions in models of cosmic evolution after the Big Bang [13].

Already Webb reveals some of the first galaxies had fundamentally different shapes and formation modes than traditionally conceived – foreshadowing further potential revelations as more building blocks and processes of early structure development come into focus at last.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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