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“Beyond What’s Possible” – Webb Space Telescope Discovers Mysterious Ancient Galaxies

Our understanding of how galaxies form and the nature of dark matter could be completely upended, after new observations of a stellar population bigger than the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The results find that a massive galaxy in the early universe – observed 11.5 billion years ago (a cosmic redshift of 3.2) – has an extremely old population of stars formed much earlier – 1.5 billion years earlier in time (a redshift of around 11). The observation upends current modeling, as not enough dark matter has built up in sufficient concentrations to seed their formation.

Swinburne University of Technology’s Distinguished Professor Karl Glazebrook led the study and the international team that used the JWST for spectroscopic observations of this massive quiescent galaxy.

“We’ve been chasing this particular galaxy for seven years and spent hours observing it with the two largest telescopes on earth to figure out how old it was. But it was too red and too faint, and we couldn’t measure it. In the end, we had to go off the Earth and use the JWST to confirm its nature.”

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Illustration

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the most powerful infrared science observatory ever to be sent into space. From its orbit nearly a million miles from Earth, Webb studies some of the most distant objects in the universe. Credit: NASA

The formation of galaxies is a fundamental paradigm underpinning modern astrophysics and predicts a strong decline in the number of massive galaxies in early cosmic times. Extremely massive quiescent galaxies have now been observed as early as one to two billion years after the DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07191-9

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