The James Webb Telescope discovers two of the oldest and most distant galaxies ever seen | James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Telescope discovers two of the oldest and most distant galaxies ever seen | James Webb Space Telescope

of NASA James Webb Space Telescope finds bright, early galaxies that have been hidden from view until now, including one that may have formed as little as 350 million years after the big bang.

Astronomers said Thursday that if the results are confirmed, this newly discovered cluster of stars would beat the most distant galaxy identified by the Hubble Space Telescope, a record holder that formed 400 million years after the universe began.

Launched last December as Hubble’s successor, the Webb Telescope shows that stars may have formed earlier than previously thought—perhaps within a few million years of the big bang.

A close-up of two of the newly discovered galaxies. Photo: ESA, NASA, CSA, STScI/AFP/Getty Images

Webb’s latest findings were detailed in Astrophysical Journal Letters by an international team led by Rohan Naidu of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The paper looks at two extremely bright galaxies, the first believed to have formed 350 million years after the big bang and the other 450 million years after that.

Naidoo said more infrared observations than Webb would be needed before he could claim a new record.

Although some researchers have reported finding galaxies even closer to the creation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago, these candidates have yet to be verified, scientists told the NASA press conference. Some of these may be later galaxies mimicking earlier ones, they note.

“It’s a very dynamic time,” said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who co-authored the paper published Thursday. “There have been many preliminary reports of even earlier galaxies, and we’re still trying to figure out as a community which ones are likely to be real.”

UCLA’s Tommaso Treu, principal scientist for Webb’s Early Release Science Program, said the evidence presented so far “is as solid as it gets” for the galaxy, which is thought to have formed 350m after the big a blast.

If the findings are confirmed and there are more early galaxies, Raidu and his team write, Webb “will prove very successful in pushing the cosmic frontier all the way to the edge of the big bang.”

Two star fields with location boxes showing the galaxies, with enlarged pull-down images of the galaxies themselves in the middle
A handout image from the Webb Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera showing the distant galaxies in the outer regions of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744. Photo: ESA, NASA, CSA, STScI/AFP/Getty Images

“When and how the first galaxies formed remains one of the most intriguing questions,” the researchers wrote.

NASA’s Jane Rigby, a project scientist with Webb, noted that these galaxies “lie just below the limits of what Hubble can do.”

“They were right there waiting for us,” she told reporters. “So it’s a happy surprise that there are many of these galaxies to study.”

The $10 billion observatory — the largest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space — is in a solar orbit 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. Full science operations began in the summer, and since then NASA has launched a series of dazzling snapshots of the universe.

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