James Webb spots six big galaxies that are so old they shouldn't EXIST

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope spots six massive galaxies that are so old they shouldn’t EXIST – in discovery that ‘pushes the limits of our understanding of cosmology’

  • NASA’s new space telescope has found six massive galaxies in the early universe
  • Discovery upends what experts previously thought about the origins of galaxies

NASA’s new super space telescope was built to peer back to the dawn of time and give us clues about how the universe burst into existence.

In less than a year, James Webb has already dazzled us with incredible images — but now it is challenging our very understanding of the origins of galaxies.

That’s because the $10 billion (£7.4 billion) observatory has just spotted six massive galaxies in the early universe that are so old they shouldn’t actually exist.

‘These objects are way more massive​ than anyone expected,’ said Joel Leja, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State.

‘We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time, but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.’

Ground-breaking: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has just spotted six massive galaxies in the early universe (pictured) that are so old they shouldn’t actually exist. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way

The researchers said their new discovery ‘pushes the limits of our understanding of cosmology’ and suggests that galaxies grew massive quicker than expected early in the history of the universe.

‘We’ve been informally calling these objects “universe breakers” — and they have been living up to their name so far,’ Leja said.


NIRCam (Near InfraRed Camera) an infrared imager from the edge of the visible through the near infrared  

NIRSpec (Near InfraRed Spectrograph) will also perform spectroscopy over the same wavelength range. 

MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) will measure the mid-to-long-infrared wavelength range from 5 to 27 micrometers.

FGS/NIRISS (Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph), is used to stabilise the line-of-sight of the observatory during science observations.  

He added that the galaxies were so big they came into conflict with 99 per cent of the models for cosmology. 

To account for the high mass, it means these models would either have to be changed, or astronomers would have to alter their fundamental understanding of how galaxies formed in the early universe.

Namely, that they started as small clouds of stars and dust that gradually grew larger over time. 

Whichever way scientists go, Leja said it would require a fundamental rethink about how the universe came to be.

‘The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,’ said Leja. 

He said the international team of researchers had ‘no idea what we were going to find’ when they looked at Webb’s first batch of data from the early universe.

‘It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question,’ Leja added.

The new findings show that the six galaxies were as mature as our Milky Way when the universe was just 3 per cent of its current age — about 500-700 million years after the Big Bang.

Webb is capable of seeing as far back in time as 13.5 billion years – around two million years after the universe was formed – because it has infrared-sensing instruments that are able to detect light emitted by the most ancient stars and galaxies. 

Baffling: Researchers said their new discovery suggests that galaxies grew massive quicker than expected early in the history of the universe. These images are a composite of separate exposures taken by the James Webb Space Telescope using its NIRCam instrument

‘This is our first glimpse back this far, so it’s important that we keep an open mind about what we are seeing,’ Leja said. 

‘While the data indicates they are likely galaxies, I think there is a real possibility that a few of these objects turn out to be obscured supermassive black holes. 

‘Regardless, the amount of mass we discovered means that the known mass in stars at this period of our universe is up to 100 times greater than we had previously thought. 

‘Even if we cut the sample in half, this is still an astounding change.’

The research was carried out using the spectroscopic data and Webb’s first full-colour images, which were released by NASA in July last year. 

‘When we got the data, everyone just started diving in and these massive things popped out really fast,’ Leja said. 

‘We started doing the modelling and tried to figure out what they were, because they were so big and bright. 

Time machine: Webb (pictured in an artist’s impression) is able to see as far back in time as 13.5 billion years – around two million years after the universe was formed – because it has infrared-sensing instruments that are capable of detecting light emitted by the most ancient stars

‘My first thought was we had made a mistake and we would just find it and move on with our lives. But we have yet to find that mistake, despite a lot of trying.’

Leja said the way for astronomers to confirm his team’s findings would be to take a spectrum image of the massive galaxies. 

This, he added, would provide data on the true distances of the galaxies and also the gasses and other elements they are made of, which in turn would allow experts to create a clearer picture of how massive they truly were.

‘A spectrum will immediately tell us whether or not these things are real,’ Leja said. 

‘It will show us how big they are, how far away they are. What’s funny is we have all these things we hope to learn from James Webb and this was nowhere near the top of the list. 

‘We’ve found something we never thought to ask the universe — and it happened way faster than I thought, but here we are.’

The discovery has been published in the journal Nature.

The James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies

The James Webb telescope has been described as a ‘time machine’ that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.

The telescope will be used to look back to the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and observe the sources of stars, exoplanets, and even the moons and planets of our solar system.

The vast telescope, which has already cost more than $7 billion (£5 billion), is considered a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope

The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of roughly 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).

It is the world’s biggest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of peering back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.

The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will work in tandem for a while. 

The Hubble telescope was launched on April 24, 1990, via the space shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

It circles the Earth at a speed of about 17,000mph (27,300kph) in low Earth orbit at about 340 miles in altitude. 

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