Can Webb Find the First Stars in the Universe?

The Universe’s very first stars had an important job. They formed from the primordial elements created by the Big Bang, so they contained no metals. It was up to them to synthesize the first metals and spread them out into the nearby Universe.

The JWST has made some progress in finding the Universe’s earliest galaxies. Can it have the same success when searching for the first stars?

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Why Was it Tricky to Know the Distances to Galaxies JWST Was Seeing?

Obtaining accurate redshift measurements is a challenge, even with telescopes like Webb. Credit: NASA

One of the chief objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is to study the formation and evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe, which emerged more than 13 billion years ago. To this end, scientists must identify galaxies from different cosmological epochs to explore how their properties have changed over time. This, in turn, requires precise dating techniques so astronomers are able to determine when (in the history of the Universe) an observed galaxy existed. The key is to measure the object’s redshift, which indicates how long its light has been traveling through space.

This is the purpose of the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), a collaborative research group that analyzes Webb data to learn more about galactic evolution. These galaxies are known as “high-redshift,” meaning that their light emissions are redshifted all the way into the infrared spectrum. Galaxies that existed ca. 13 billion years ago can only be observed in the near-infrared spectrum, which is now possible thanks to Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Even so, obtaining accurate redshift measurements from such distant galaxies is a very tricky, and requires advanced techniques.

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“The Universe Breakers”: Six Galaxies That are Too Big, Too Early

Images of six candidate massive galaxies, seen 500-700 million years after the Big Bang. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way, according to researchers, but it is 30 times more compact. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen).

In the first data taken last summer with the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the new James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers found six galaxies from a time when the Universe was only 3% of its current age, just 500-700 million years after the Big Bang. While its incredible JWST saw these galaxies from so long ago, the data also pose a mystery.

These galaxies should be mere infants, but instead they resemble galaxies of today, containing 100 times more stellar mass than astronomers were expecting to see so soon after the beginning of the Universe. If confirmed, this finding calls into question the current thinking of galaxy formation and challenges most models of cosmology.

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The James Webb Links Modern Green Pea Galaxies to Ancient Galaxies in the Cosmic Dawn

A trio of faint objects (circled) captured in the James Webb Space Telescope’s deep image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 exhibit properties remarkably similar to rare, small galaxies called “green peas” found much closer to home. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

When the James Webb Space Telescope lifted off from Earth on Christmas Day in 2021, it carried a lot of expectations with it. One of its scientific goals is to seek the light from the first galaxies in the Universe and to study how galaxies form and evolve.

A new paper shows that the JWST is doing just that and has found a link between the first galaxies and rare galaxies in our backyard that astronomers call “Green Pea” galaxies.

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Wandering Stars Have Been Adrift Between Galaxies for Billions of Years

Hubble Space Telescope images of two massive clusters of galaxies named MOO J1014+0038 (left panel) and SPT-CL J2106-5844 (right panel).. Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/James Jee (Yonsei University)/Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

In the giant galaxy clusters in the Universe, which can consist of hundreds or thousands of galaxies, there are countless “rogue” stars wandering between them. These stars are not gravitationally bound to any individual galaxy but to the halo of galaxy clusters themselves and are only discernible by the diffuse light they emit – “Ghost Light” or “Intracluster light” (ICL). For astronomers, the explanation for how these stars became so scattered throughout their galaxy clusters has always been an unresolved question.

There are several theories, including the possibility that the stars were pulled from their galaxies, ejected in the course of galactic mergers, or were part of their cluster since its early formation billions of years ago. Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a team from Yonsei University, Seoul, and the University of California, Davis, conducted an infrared survey of distant galaxy clusters. Their observations suggest that these wandering stars have been adrift for billions of years and were not stripped from their respective galaxies.

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