Almost a Third of Early Galaxies Were Already Spirals

The graceful winding arms of the grand-design spiral galaxy M51 stretch across this image from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. New JWST observations of the early Universe are upending our understanding of galaxy evolution. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team

In the years before the JWST’s launch, astronomers’ efforts to understand the early Universe were stymied by a stubborn obstacle: the light from the early Universe was red-shifted to an extreme degree. The JWST was built with extreme redshifts in mind, and one of its goals was to study Galaxy Assembly.

Once the JWST activated its segmented, beryllium eye, the Universe’s most ancient, red-shifted light became visible.

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Astronomers Propose a 14-Meter Infrared Space Telescope

An artist's illustration of the SALTUS Observatory concept. SALTUS is a Far-IR space telescope that will open a new window into the cosmos. Image Credit: NASA

The Universe wants us to understand its origins. Every second of every day, it sends us a multitude of signals, each one a clue to a different aspect of the cosmos. But the Universe is the original Trickster, and its multitude of signals is an almost unrecognizable cacophony of light, warped, shifted, and stretched during its long journey through the expanding Universe.

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Three of the Oldest Stars in the Universe Found Circling the Milky Way

MIT astronomers discovered three of the oldest stars in the universe, and they live in our own galactic neighborhood. The stars are in the Milky Way’s “halo” — the cloud of stars that envelopes the main galactic disk — and they appear to have formed between 12 and 13 billion years ago, when the very first galaxies were taking shape. Credits:Image: Serge Brunier; NASA

Mention the Milky Way and most people will visualise a great big spiral galaxy billions of years old. It’s thought to be a galaxy that took shape billions of years after the Big Bang. Studies by astronomers have revealed that there are the echo’s of an earlier time around us. A team of astronomers from MIT have found three ancient stars orbiting the Milky Way’s halo. The team think these stars formed when the Universe was around a billion years old and that they were once part of a smaller galaxy that was consumed by the Milky Way. 

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JWST Sees a Milky Way-Like Galaxy Coming Together in the Early Universe

The ancient Firefly Sparkle galaxy is precursor to galaxies like the Milky Way. The JWST found ten separate clusters in the galaxy that show how the galaxy is growing through mergers. Image Credit: Mowla et al. 2024.

The gigantic galaxies we see in the Universe today, including our own Milky Way galaxy, started out far smaller. Mergers throughout the Universe’s 13.7 billion years gradually assembled today’s massive galaxies. But they may have begun as mere star clusters.

In an effort to understand the earliest galaxies, the JWST has examined their ancient light for clues as to how they became so massive.

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Feast Your Eyes on 19 Face-On Spiral Galaxies Seen by Webb

These Webb images are part of a large, long-standing project, the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) program, which is supported by more than 150 astronomers worldwide. Before Webb took these images, PHANGS was already brimming with data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope’s Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, including observations in ultraviolet, visible, and radio light. Webb’s near- and mid-infrared contributions have provided several new puzzle pieces. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA

If you’re fascinated by Nature, these images of spiral galaxies won’t help you escape your fascination.

These images show incredible detail in 19 spirals, imaged face-on by the JWST. The galactic arms with their multitudes of stars are lit up in infrared light, as are the dense galactic cores, where supermassive black holes reside.

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There Aren’t Many Galaxies Like The Milky Way Nearby. Now We Know Why

Antennas of the Very Large Array against the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF/Jeff Hellerman

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy, maybe even a grand design spiral galaxy. We can’t be sure from our vantage point. But one thing is certain: there aren’t many disk galaxies like it in our part of the Universe called the supergalactic plane.

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JWST Sees Merging Galaxies Releasing the Light of a Trillion Suns

ARP 220 is a pair of merging galaxies about 250 million light years away. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

If we want to know what it’ll look like in about 4.5 billion years when our galaxy merges with Andromeda, we might take a look at ARP 220. ARP 220 is a pair of galaxies that are in the process of merging. The merging galaxies emit brilliant infrared light, and the James Webb Space Telescope captured that light in a vivid portrait.

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Astronomers Uncover Mass Migration of Stars into Andromeda

Astronomers at NSF’s NOIRLab found new evidence for a mass immigration of stars into the Andromeda Galaxy. This image shows individual stars from blue (moving toward us) to red (moving away from us). Image Credit: KPNO/NOIRLab/AURA/NSF/E. Slawik/D. de Martin/M. Zamani

Astronomers know that galaxies grow over time through mergers with other galaxies. We can see it happening in our galaxy. The Milky Way is slowly absorbing the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy.

For the first time, astronomers have found evidence of an ancient mass migration of stars into another galaxy. They spotted over 7,000 stars in Andromeda (M31), our nearest neighbour, that merged into the galaxy about two billion years ago.

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According to Simulations, the Milky Way is One in a Million

A lonely Milky Way analogue galaxy, too massive for its wall. The background image shows the distribution of dark matter (green and blue) and galaxies (here seen as tiny yellow dots) in a thin slice of the cubic volume in which we expect to find one of such rare massive galaxies. Credit Images: Miguel A. Aragon-Calvo. Simulation data: Illustris TNG project Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Humanity is in a back-and-forth relationship with nature. First, we thought we were at the center of everything, with the Sun and the entire cosmos rotating around our little planet. We eventually realized that wasn’t true. Over the centuries, we’ve found that though Earth and life might be rare, our Sun is pretty normal, our Solar System is relatively non-descript, and even our galaxy is one of the billions of spiral galaxies, a type that makes up 60% of the galaxies in the Universe.

But the Illustris TNG simulation shows that the Milky Way is special.

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The Donut That Used To Be a Star

This sequence of artist's illustrations shows how a black hole can devour a bypassing star. 1) A normal star passes near a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy. 2) The star's outer gasses are pulled into the black hole's gravitational field. 3) The star is shredded as tidal forces pull it apart. 4) The stellar remnants are pulled into a donut-shaped ring around the black hole, and will eventually fall into the black hole, unleashing a tremendous amount of light and high-energy radiation. Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

The death of a star is one of the most dramatic natural events in the Universe. Some stars die in dramatic supernova explosions, leaving nebulae behind as shimmering remnants of their former splendour. Some simply wither away as their hydrogen runs out, billowing into a red giant as they do so.

But others are consumed by behemoth black holes, and as they’re destroyed, the black hole’s powerful gravity tears the star apart and draws its gas into a donut-shaped ring around the black hole.

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