The JWST is Re-Writing Astronomy Textbooks

The first JWST Deep Field Image, showing large distant galaxies. The telescope's observations are revealing the previously unseen and are forcing a re-write of astronomy textbooks. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

When the James Webb Space Telescope was launched at the end of 2021, we expected stunning images and illuminating scientific results. So far, the powerful space telescope has lived up to our expectations. The JWST has shown us things about the early Universe we never anticipated.

Some of those results are forcing a rewrite of astronomy textbooks.

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Galaxies in the Early Universe Preferred their Food Cold

This illustration shows a galaxy forming only a few hundred million years after the big bang, when gas was a mix of transparent and opaque during the Era of Reionization. Data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows that cold gas is falling onto these galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

One of the main objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is to study the early Universe by using its powerful infrared optics to spot the first galaxies while they were still forming. Using Webb data, a team led by the Cosmic Dawn Center in Denmark pinpointed three galaxies that appear to have been actively forming just 400 to 600 million years after the Big Bang. This places them within the Era of Reionization, when the Universe was permeated by opaque clouds of neutral hydrogen that were slowly heated and ionized by the first stars and galaxies.

This process caused the Universe to become transparent roughly 1 billion years after the Big Bang and (therefore) visible to astronomers today. When the team consulted the data obtained by Webb, they observed that these galaxies were surrounded by an unusual amount of dense gas composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, which likely became fuel for further galactic growth. These findings already reveal valuable information about the formation of early galaxies and show how Webb is exceeding its mission objectives.

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Webb Finds Deep Space Alcohol and Chemicals in Newly Forming Planetary 

This image was taken by Webb’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) of a region parallel to the massive protostar known as IRAS23385.  IRAS 2A and IRAS23385 (not visible in this image) were targets for a recent research effort by an international team of astronomers that used Webb to discover that the key ingredients for making potentially habitable worlds are present in early-stage protostars, where planets have not yet formed. With MIRI’s unprecedented spectral resolution and sensitivity, the JOYS+ (James Webb Observations of Young ProtoStars) programme individually identified organic molecules that have been confirmed to be present in interstellar ices. This includes the robust detection of acetaldehyde, ethanol, methyl formate, and likely acetic acid, in the solid phase. [Image description: A region of a molecular cloud. The cloud is dense and bright close to the top of the image, like rolling clouds, and grows darker and more wispy towards the bottom and in the top corner. One bright star, and several dimmer stars, are visible as light spots among the clouds. The image is a single exposure which has been assigned an orange colour for visibility.]

Since its launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has made some amazing discoveries. Recent observations have found a number of key ingredients required for life in young proto-stars where planetary formation is imminent. Chemicals like methane, acetic acid and ethanol have been detected in interstellar ice. Previous telescopic observations have only hinted at their presence as a warm gas. Not only have they been detected but a team of scientists have synthesised some of them in a lab.

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In a Distant Solar System, the JWST Sees the End of Planet Formation

This artist's illustration shows what gas leaving a planet-forming disk might look like around the T Tauri star T. Cha. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser CC BY

Every time a star forms, it represents an explosion of possibilities. Not for the star itself; its fate is governed by its mass. The possibilities it signifies are in the planets that form around it. Will some be rocky? Will they be in the habitable zone? Will there be life on any of the planets one day?

There’s a point in every solar system’s development when it can no longer form planets. No more planets can form because there’s no more gas and dust available, and the expanding planetary possibilities are truncated. But the total mass of a solar system’s planets never adds up to the total mass of gas and dust available around the young star.

What happens to the mass, and why can’t more planets form?

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Webb Watches the Most Distant Galactic Merger Ever Seen

JWST shows details of massive galaxy merger 13 billion years ago. Credit: ASTRO 3D
JWST shows details of massive galaxy merger 13 billion years ago. Credit: ASTRO 3D

Astronomers know that galaxies form through mergers. They’ve been happening since the earliest epochs of cosmic time. Using the Webb telescope (JWST) astronomers found a massive merger of young galaxies going on about a half million years after the Big Bang. It’s called Gz9p3, one of the earliest and most distant mergers ever witnessed.

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Finding Atmospheres on Red Dwarf Planets Will Take Hundreds of Hours of Webb Time

This illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like based on science data. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope examined the exoplanet and revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules. The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide, and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. But more extensive observations with the JWST are needed to understand its atmosphere with greater confidence. Image Credit: By Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)Science: Nikku Madhusudhan (IoA)

The JWST is enormously powerful. One of the reasons it was launched is to examine exoplanet atmospheres to determine their chemistry, something only a powerful telescope can do. But even the JWST needs time to wield that power effectively, especially when it comes to one of exoplanet science’s most important targets: rocky worlds orbiting red dwarfs.

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Webb Reveals Secrets of Neptune’s Evolution

JWST's view of Neptune in infrared. The telescope also studied the surfaces of two icy asteroids in the Kuiper Belt that lie beyond Neptune. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
JWST's view of Neptune in infrared. The telescope also studied the surfaces of two icy asteroids in the Kuiper Belt that lie beyond Neptune. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

A twinset of icy asteroids called Mors-Somnus is giving planetary scientists some clues about the origin and evolution of objects in the Kuiper Belt. JWST studied them during its first cycle of observations and revealed details about their surfaces, which gives hints at their origins. That information may also end up explaining how Neptune got to be the way it is today.

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Webb Continues to Confirm That Universe is Behaving Strangely

Image of NGC 5468, a galaxy located about 130 million light-years from Earth, combines data from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/A. Riess (JHU/STScI)

Over a century ago, astronomers Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre independently discovered that the Universe was expanding. Since then, scientists have attempted to measure the rate of expansion (known as the Hubble-Lemaitre Constant) to determine the origin, age, and ultimate fate of the Universe. This has proved very daunting, as ground-based telescopes yielded huge uncertainties, leading to age estimates of anywhere between 10 and 20 billion years! This disparity between these measurements, produced by different techniques, gave rise to what is known as the Hubble Tension.

It was hoped that the aptly named Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990) would resolve this tension by providing the deepest views of the Universe to date. After 34 years of continuous service, Hubble has managed to shrink the level of uncertainty but not eliminate it. This led some in the scientific community to suggest (as an Occam’s Razor solution) that Hubble‘s measurements were incorrect. But according to the latest data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Hubble’s successor, it appears that the venerable space telescope’s measurements were right all along.

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Now You Can See Exactly Where Hubble and JWST are Pointed

Graphics of the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes. Credit: NASA/STScI.

Hubble and JWST are busily scanning the sky, sending home enormous amounts of data. They shift from target to target, completing the required observations.

But have you ever wondered what those two space telescopes are doing right at this moment? Now, you can do just that at the new Space Telescope Live website. It will show you what each observatory is scanning, where the objects are in the sky, and what researchers hope to learn. You can even go back or forward in time and see what each telescope has been looking at in the past or what observations are coming up.

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Dwarf Galaxies Banished the Darkness and Lit Up the Early Universe

The JWST used gravitational lensing to search for the sources of light that triggered the Epoch of Reionization and brought darkness to an end. The white hazy blobs are galaxies in Pandora's Cluster, which acts as the gravitational lens. The red objects are the distant and ancient objects magnified by the lens, some of them warped into arcs. Many of them are early dwarf galaxies, some of them responsible for the Epoch of Reionization. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA JWST

During the Universe’s Dark Ages, dense primordial gas absorbed and scattered light, prohibiting it from travelling. Only when the first stars and galaxies began to shine in energetic UV light did the Epoch of Reionization begin. The powerful UV light shone through the Universe and punched holes in the gas, allowing light to travel freely.

New observations with the James Webb Space Telescope reveal how it happened. The telescope shows that faint dwarf galaxies brought an end to the darkness.

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