(CNN) Astronomers are using the James Webb Space Telescope to look back at the early days of the universe — and they’ve discovered something unexpected.
The space observatory revealed six massive galaxies dating between 500 million and 700 million years after the Big Bang that created the universe. The discovery completely upends current theories about the origin of galaxies, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“These objects are much larger than anyone expected,” Joel Leja, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, said in a statement. “We expected to find only small, young, infant galaxies at this time, but we have found our mature galaxies in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”
The telescope surveys the universe in infrared light, invisible to the human eye, and is capable of detecting faint light from ancient stars and galaxies. By peering into the distant universe, the observatory can essentially see as far back as 13.5 billion years ago. (Scientists have determined that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.)
“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began very early in the history of the Universe improves what many of us thought was settled science,” Leja said. “We informally call these objects ‘universe breakers’ – and so far they’ve lived up to their name.”
The galaxies are so massive that they conflict with 99% of models representing the earliest galaxies in the universe, meaning scientists must rethink how galaxies formed and evolved. Current theory suggests that galaxies began as small clouds of stars and dust that grew over time.
“We were looking at the early universe for the first time and had no idea what we were going to find,” Leja said. “We found something unexpected that really creates problems for science. It calls into question the whole picture of early galaxy formation.”
Exploring early galaxies
Leja and his colleagues began analyzing Web data The telescope’s first high-resolution images, once they were released in July. The galaxies appeared to be large points of light, and the team was surprised to see them — so surprised, they thought they had made a mistake in interpreting the data.
“Once we got the data, everybody started jumping in and these massive things came out really fast,” Leja said. “We started modeling and trying to figure out what they were, because they were so big and bright. My first thought was that we’ve made a mistake and we’ll figure it out and move on with our lives. But we still haven’t. We’ve tried hard to find the mistake.”
One way to determine why galaxies grew so quickly is to image the galaxy’s spectrum, which involves splitting light into different wavelengths to define the various elements, as well as determine the actual distance of the galaxies, Leja said. Spectroscopy data will provide a detailed look at galaxies and their impressive size.
“A spectrum will tell us immediately if these things are real or not,” Leja said. “It’s going to show us how big they are and how far away they are. The funny thing is, we have all these things we think we’re going to learn from James Webb, which isn’t at the top of the list. We’ve discovered something we didn’t think we could. To listen to the universe — it happened faster than I thought, but Here we are.”
Galaxies identified with web data may actually be something else entirely.
“This is our first observation so far, so it’s important to keep an open mind about what we see,” Leja said. “While the data suggests that they are galaxies, I think there is a real possibility that some of these objects could become hidden supermassive black holes. Regardless, the amount of mass we found represents the known mass of stars at this time. Our universe is 100 times larger than we previously thought. Even halving the sample, this A more astonishing change.”