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The James Webb Space Telescope has given astronomers a glimpse of the early universe in a new image shared Wednesday.
The powerful space observatory is able to detect the faint light of very distant galaxies as they shine in infrared light, a wavelength invisible to the human eye. Webb is a crucial tool that astronomers can use to better understand how galaxies formed and evolved in the early universe.
The telescope captured an image of a galaxy cluster called MACS0647, as well as the distant galaxy MACS0647-JD. The cluster appears as a dazzling cluster of galaxies that shine like precious gems against the dark background of space.
The distant galaxy is visible due to a certain type of observational phenomenon due to the cluster. This phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, occurs when foreground galaxies act as a magnifying glass for distant objects behind them.
Small boxes were used to delineate the galaxy MACS0647-JD, and more detailed images of the galaxy are aligned to the right of the figure. The set essentially triple-lensed the galaxy, enlarging it and causing it to appear in three separate places within the image. Each box on the right shows different details of the galaxy.
Astronomer Dan Coe discovered MACS0647-JD 10 years ago using the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb’s new image of the galaxy revealed a surprise: it has two distinct features.
“With Hubble, it was just this pale red dot. We could tell it was really small, just a tiny galaxy in the first 400 million years of the universe,” said Coe, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute of the European Space Agency and the Association of Universities for Astronomical Research. In a NASA statement. .
“Now we search with Webb, and we are able to resolve TWO objects! We are actively debating whether it is two galaxies within one galaxy or two clusters of stars. We don’t know, but these are the questions Webb is designed to help answer.’
The two objects are different in color, one is more blue and the other is more red. Colors represent different gases. While the blue object represents the formation of young stars, the red object is dusty and older. Astronomers believe that the two objects in the image of the galaxy may suggest a merger between two galaxies.
“It’s really interesting to see two structures in such a small system,” Johns Hopkins University doctoral student Tiger Yu-Yang Hsiao said in a statement. “We could be witnessing a galaxy merger in the early universe. If this is a distant merger, I’ll be really excited!”
The research team has written a paper on the discovery of the potential merger, but like the first observations made by Webb since it began science operations in July, the findings have not yet gone through the peer review process. The team is also planning a more detailed study of MACS0647-JD in January.
Each of Webb’s observations reveals previously hidden and unseen aspects of the universe, thanks to the telescope’s ability to spy faint infrared light through thick interstellar dust. Astronomers are excited about the telescope’s potential for discovery, as the observatory only began its 20-year mission a few months ago.
“Until now, we have not been able to study galaxies in the early universe in great detail. Before Webb, we had only tens of them,” said Rebecca Larson, a National Science Foundation fellow and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, in a statement. “Studying them can help us understand how they evolved into the galaxies we live in today. And , also, how the universe evolved over time.’