One method to study our Galactic origins is to study the earliest building blocks of the Milky Way by searching for and analyzing galaxies forming in the early Universe. NASA’s JWST is the ideal machine to push our cosmic horizons to the epoch of the first galaxies.

Two brand-new pictures taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveal what might be some of the oldest galaxies ever seen. The objects in both photographs date back more than 13 billion years, and one has a significantly larger field of view than Webb’s First Deep Field image.

The photographs are among the first to come from a significant partnership between astronomers and other academic researchers working with NASA and international partners to uncover new information about the Universe.

Scientists, in particular, had identified one exciting object- dubbed Maisie’s galaxy in honor of project head Steven Finkelstein’s daughter. The galaxy is being observed as it was just 290 million years after the Big Bang.

It will be among the first galaxies ever discovered if the discovery is confirmed. Its existence would show that galaxies began forming considerably earlier than many scientists had previously believed.

A flurry of intricate galaxies forming over time can be seen in the images, some of which are – elegantly mature pinwheels, blobby toddlers, and yet others are gauzy swirls of do-si-doing neighbors. The images, taken over 24 hours, were taken from a section of the sky near the handle of the Big Dipper, officially known as Ursa Major.

Steven Finkelstein, associate professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, said, “It’s amazing to see a point of light from Hubble turn into a whole, beautifully shaped galaxy in these new James Webb images, and other galaxies just pop up out of nowhere.”

The CEERS collaboration comprises 18 co-investigators from 12 Institutions and more than 100 collaborators from the U.S. and nine other countries. CEERS scientists are studying how some of the earliest galaxies formed when the Universe was less than 5% of its current age, during a period known as reionization.

The large image is a mosaic of 690 individual frames that took about 24 hours to collect using Webb’s NIRCam. This new image covers an area of the sky about eight times as large as Webb’s First Deep Field image, although it is not quite as deep.

Using supercomputers for initial image processing: Stampede2 was used to remove background noise and artifacts, and Frontera, the world’s most powerful supercomputer at a U.S. university, was used to stitch together the images to form a single mosaic.

Finkelstein said“High-performance computing power made it possible to combine myriad images and hold the frames in memory at once for processing, resulting in a single beautiful image.”

The other image (medium res) was taken with the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Compared with NIRcam, MIRI has a smaller field of view but operates at a much higher spatial resolution than previous mid-infrared telescopes. MIRI detects longer wavelengths than NIRCam, allowing astronomers to see cosmic dust glowing from star-forming galaxies and black holes at modestly large distances and see the light from older stars at very large distances.

Journal Reference:

  1. Steven L. Finkelstein, Micaela B. Bagley et al. Wide View of Early Universe Hints at Galaxy Among the Earliest Ever Detected. Astrophysics of Galaxies 25 Jul 2022. arXiv:2207.12474v1/ DOI: 10.48550/arXiv.2207.12474

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