Staring off into the ancient past with a $10 billion space telescope, hoping to find extraordinarily faint signals from the earliest galaxies, might seem like a forlorn task. But it’s only forlorn if we don’t find any. Now that the James Webb Space Telescope has found those signals, the exercise has moved from forlorn to hopeful.
About 13 billion years ago, the stars in the Universe’s earliest galaxies sent photons out into space. Some of those photons ended their epic journey on the James Webb Space Telescope’s gold-plated, beryllium mirrors in the last few months. The JWST gathered these primordial photons over several days to create its first “Deep Field” image.
The scientific and astronomical community are eagerly waiting for Tuesday, July 12th, to come around. On this day, the first images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be released! According to a previous statement by the agency, these images will include the deepest views of the Universe ever taken and spectra obtained from an exoplanet atmosphere. In another statement issued yesterday, the images were so beautiful that they almost brought Thomas Zarbuchen – Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – to tears!
Around the Milky Way, there are literally dozens of dwarf galaxies that continue to be slowly absorbed into our own. These galaxies are a major source of interest for astronomers because they can teach us a great deal about cosmic evolution, like how smaller galaxies merged over time to create larger structures. Since they are thought to be relics of the very first galaxies in the Universe, they are also akin to “galactic fossils.”
Recently, a team of astrophysicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed one of the most ancient of these galaxies (Tucana II) and noticed something unexpected. At the edge of the galaxy, they observed stars in a configuration that suggest that Tucana II has an extended Dark Matter halo. These findings imply that the most ancient galaxies in the Universe had more Dark Matter than previously thought.
The behaviour of galaxies in the early Universe attracts a lot of attention from researchers. In fact, everything about the early Universe is under intense scientific scrutiny for obvious reasons. But unlike the Universe’s first stars, which have all died long ago, the galaxies we see around us—including our own—have been here since the early days.
Current scientific thinking says that in the early days of the Universe, the galaxies grew slowly, taking billions of years to become what they are now. But new observations show that might not be the case.
The most widely accepted cosmological view states that the first galaxies formed about 380–400 million years after the Big Bang. These were made up of young, hot stars that lived fast and died young, causing the galaxies themselves to be turbulent. At least, that was the theory until a European team of astronomers observed a galaxy 12 billion light-years away that closely resembled the Milky Way.
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array(ALMA), the team observed the galaxy, SPT0418-47, as it appeared when the Universe was just 1.4 billion years old. Much to their surprise, the team noted that the structure and features of this galaxy were highly evolved and stable, something that contradicts previously-held notions about the nature of galaxies in the early Universe.
If we want to understand how the Universe evolves, we have to understand how its large structures form and evolve. That’s why astronomers study galaxy formation. Galaxies are enormous structures of stars, planets, gas, dust, and dark matter, and understanding how they form is critical to understanding the Universe itself.
In 2017, astronomers working with ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) discovered an ancient galaxy. This massive rotating disk galaxy was born when the Universe was only about 1.5 billion years old. According to the most accepted understanding of how galaxies form and evolve, it shouldn’t exist.
By looking deeper into space (and farther back in time), astronomers and cosmologists continue to push the boundaries of what is known about the Universe. Thanks to improvements in instrumentation and observation techniques, we are now at the point where astronomers are able to observe some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe – which in turn is providing vital clues about how our Universe evolved.
It allowed us to spot auroras on Saturn and planets orbiting distant suns. It permitted astronomers to see galaxies in the early stages of formation, and look back to some of the earliest periods in the Universe. It also measured the distances to Cepheid variable stars more accurately than ever before, which helped astrophysicists constrain how fast the Universe is expanding (the Hubble Constant).
It did all of this and more, which is why no space telescope is as recognized and revered as the Hubble Space Telescope. And while it’s mission is currently scheduled to end in 2021, Hubble is still breaking new ground. Thanks to the efforts of a research team from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), Hubble recently obtained the deepest images of the Universe ever taken from space.
In their pursuit of learning how our Universe came to be, scientists have probed very deep into space (and hence, very far back in time). Ultimately, their goal is to determine when the first galaxies in our Universe formed and what effect they had on cosmic evolution. Recent efforts to locate these earliest formations have probed to distances of up to 13 billion light-years from Earth – i.e. about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.
From this, scientist are now able to study how early galaxies affected matter around them – in particular, the reionization of neutral atoms. Unfortunately, most early galaxies are very faint, which makes studying their interiors difficult. But thanks to a recent survey conducted by an international team of astronomers, a more luminous, massive galaxy was spotted that could provide a clear look at how early galaxies led to reionization.
In accordance with Big Bang model of cosmology, reionization refers to the process that took place after the period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.
Just prior to this period, the “Recombination” occurred, where hydrogen and helium atoms began to form. Initially ionized (with no electrons bound to their nuclei) these molecules gradually captured ions as the Universe cooled, becoming neutral. During the period that followed – i.e. between 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang – the large-scale structure of the Universe began to form.
Intrinsic to this was the process of reionization, where the first stars and quasars formed and their radiation reionized the surrounding Universe. It is therefore clear why astronomers want to probe this era of the Universe. By observing the first stars and galaxies, and what effect they had on the cosmos, astronomers will get a clearer picture of how this early period led to the Universe as we know it today.
Luckily for the research team, the massive, star-forming galaxies of this period are known to contain a great deal of dust. While very faint in the optical band, these galaxies emit strong radiation at submillimeter wavelengths, which makes them detectable using today’s advanced telescopes – including the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), and Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).
For the sake of their study, Strandet and Weiss relied on data from the SPT to detect a series of dusty galaxies from the early Universe. As Maria Strandet and Axel Weiss of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (and the lead author and co-authors on the study, respectively) told Universe Today via email:
“We have used light of about 1 mm wavelength, which can be observed by mm telescopes like SPT, APEX or ALMA. At this wavelength the photons are produced by the thermal radiation of dust. The beauty of using this long wavelength is, that for a large redshift range (look back time), the dimming of galaxies [caused] by increasing distance is compensated by the redshift – so the observed intensity is independent of the redshift. This is because, for higher redshift galaxies, one is looking at intrinsically shorter wavelengths (by (1+z)) where the radiation is stronger for a thermal spectrum like the dust spectrum.”
This was followed by data from ALMA, which the team used to determine the distance of the galaxies by looking at the redshifted wavelength of carbon monoxide molecules in their interstellar mediums (ISM). From all the data they collected, they were able to constrain the properties of one of these galaxies – SPT0311-58 – by observing its spectral lines. In so doing, they determined that this galaxy existed just 760 million years after the Big Bang.
“Since the signal strength at 1mm is independent of the redshift (look back time), we do not have an a priori clue if an object is relatively near (in the cosmological sense) or at the epoch of reionization,” they said. “That is why we undertook a large survey to determine the redshifts via the emission of molecular lines using ALMA. SPT0311-58 turns out to be the highest redshift object discovered in this survey and in fact the most distant massive dusty star-forming galaxy so far discovered.”
From their observations, they also determined that SPT0311-58 has a mass of about 330 billion Solar-masses, which is about 66 times as much as the Milky Way Galaxy (which has about 5 billion Solar-masses). They also estimated that it is forming new stars at a rate of several thousand per year, which could as be the case for neighboring galaxies that are dated to this period.
This rare and distant object is one of the best candidates yet for studying what the early Universe looked like and how it has evolved since. This in turn will allow astronomers and cosmologists to test the theoretical basis for the Big Bang Theory. As Strandet and Weiss told Universe Today about their discovery:
“These objects are important to understanding the evolution of galaxies as a whole since the large amounts of dust already present in this source, only 760 million years after the Big Bang, means that it is an extremely massive object. The mere fact that such massive galaxies already existed when the Universe was still so young puts strong constraints on our understanding of galaxy mass buildup. Furthermore the dust needs to form in a very short time, which gives additional insights on the dust production from the first stellar population.”
The ability to look deeper into space, and farther back in time, has led to many surprising discoveries of late. And these have in turn challenged some of our assumptions about what happened in the Universe, and when. And in the end, they are helping scientists to create a more detailed and complete account of cosmic evolution. Someday soon, we might even be able to probe the earliest moments in the Universe, and watch creation in action!