The James Webb space telescope has detected what appear to be six massive ancient galaxies, which astronomers are calling “universe breakers” because their existence could upend current theories of cosmology.
The objects date to a time when the universe was just 3% of its current age and are far larger than was presumed possible for galaxies so early after the big bang. If confirmed, the findings would call into question scientists’ understanding of how the earliest galaxies formed.
“These objects are way more massive than anyone expected,” said Joel Leja, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University and a study co-author. “We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time, but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”
The observations come from the first dataset released from Nasa’s James Webb space telescope, which is equipped with infrared-sensing instruments capable of detecting light emitted by the most ancient stars and galaxies. While sifting through images, Dr Erica Nelson, of the University of Colorado Boulder, and a co-author, spotted a series of “fuzzy dots” that appeared unusually bright and unusually red.
Redness in astronomy is a proxy for age, because as light travels across the expanding universe it is stretched out, or red-shifted. These galaxies appeared to be roughly 13.5bn years old, placing them about 500m-700m years after the big bang.