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May 29, 2024

Webb Telescope Reveals Surprising Shapes of Early Galaxies, Solving Long-Standing Mystery

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Jan 20, 2024

The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) has uncovered a key piece of the puzzle about the early universe, revealing an unexpected diversity in the shapes of fledgling galaxies when the cosmos was only a tiny fraction of its current age.

Webb Images Show Young Galaxies Unlike Modern Ones

Analyzing Webb’s first batch of cosmological images, an international team of astronomers discovered that many early galaxies had irregular, elongated shapes unlike the spiral and elliptical galaxies common today. Some appeared thin like galactic “noodles” or “breadsticks,” while others took the form of flat, elongated “surfboards.” [1] [2]

“Their strange shapes are almost impossible to explain with current galaxy formation models,” said astronomer Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology, a co-author on the study published January 18 in Nature. “We really need to rethink how these earliest galaxies came together.” [3]

Galaxy Type Modern Analogue Webb Examples
Noodle Spiral arm Long, thin structure
Breadstick Elliptical Elongated, uniform width
Surfboard Irregular Flattened, extended

The research focused on massive galaxies up to 11 billion lightyears away, whose light has taken most of cosmic history to reach us. Captured when the universe was only about 5% of its current age of 13.8 billion years, these galaxies provide an unprecedented glimpse into the era when today’s giant clusters like our own Milky Way were just beginning to take shape. [4]

Solving the “Great Debate” on Gas & Star Formation

In addition to their odd shapes, the early Webb galaxies shone exceptionally bright in ultraviolet light. Astronomers have long puzzled over this UV glow, which exceeds what can be attributed to new stars forming.

“It’s been a real mystery – these fledgling galaxies were unexpectedly pumping out insane amounts of UV radiation,” said Brant Robertson of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Theorists have bent over backwards trying to explain it.” [5]

By revealing the elongated forms of early galaxies for the first time, the Webb results strongly support the idea that violent mergers between smaller galaxies drove supercharged star formation and black hole growth. As gas-rich building blocks combined, their gravitational interactions would have lit stellar nurseries ablaze.

“It’s like solving a galactic murder mystery – all the clues pointed to rampant galaxy collisions as the culprit behind those extreme radiation levels,” said Robertson. “The Webb images clinch it.”

The findings address what astronomer Natasha Maddox of the Space Telescope Science Institute called “one of the greatest debates from the history of cosmology.” [6] Dubbed the “Great Debate,” eminent scientists including Martin Rees and Allan Sandage fiercely argued over whether galaxy interactions or isolated collapse birthed the earliest cosmic structures.

“I think we can finally consider the debate settled,” Maddox said. “Webb’s evidence unambiguously points to violent merging activity dominating the early universe.”

Lasting Impact: New Theories of Structure Formation

For decades, astronomers’ theories, simulations, and observations mostly envisioned early galaxies as neat structures condensing from collapsing gas clouds, not messily interacting. The radically different Webb view requires revising models of how cosmic structures arise.

“This will have an enormous and lasting impact,” said Marco Castellano of Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics. “Our fundamental concept of galaxy assembly has been turned upside down.” [7]

Some researchers predicted elongated shapes and merger-driven UV emissions before Webb launched, but lacked definitive proof. “It’s amazing to have our somewhat outrageous predictions dramatically confirmed,” said astronomer Natascha Förster Schreiber of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. “Webb’s capabilities are beyond what I imagined possible.” [8]

Already Webb’s early universe observations have far surpassed those of other telescopes like Hubble, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, and even the future Extremely Large Telescope. “We’ve instantly leapt forward by an order of magnitude compared to existing facilities,” Förster Schreiber said.

What’s Next: More Webb Discoveries

With more analysis of Webb’s deep field images to come, researchers expect further seismic shifts in knowledge of cosmic evolution. One major unknown is how the skinny young galaxies transformed into rotating disks like the Milky Way over billions of years.

“Now we have the first clear look at what we need to explain – those crazy elongated things,” said Kartaltepe. “Webb is already revealing that the history of structure formation is wilder than we ever conceived.” [9]

Astronomers also hope to trace the growth of central black holes within the dark heart of galaxies, which power quasars that bathe the early universe in radiation. By charting both galactic mergers and black hole evolution, Webb could unveil how these processes interconnected to shape galaxies over the eons.

“It’s only the beginning of Webb’s mission, but we’ve already rewritten the textbook on the early universe,” Robertson said. “Who knows what other hidden chapters it will reveal next?”

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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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