In a dance of dark matter, NASA’s Deep Space Observatory captured light being bent in the distant universe.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s massive mirror has used the gravity of a cluster of galaxies to peek at a known galaxy far behind, but there’s a twist: New research published Wednesday (October 26) suggests Webb may see two galaxies and not one. (The region has already been photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, but this new view is sharper than ever.)
“We are actively discussing whether these are two galaxies or two star clusters in one galaxy,” said Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Dan Coe, instrument specialist for Webb’s near-infrared camera. , in a statement from NASA. (opens in a new tab). “We don’t know, but these are the questions Webb is designed to help us answer.”
Related: Why the stunning ‘Pillars of Creation’ photo from the James Webb Space Telescope has astronomers buzzing
Hubble saw the objects, found 10 years ago and called MACS0647-JD, as a “pale red dot” formed just 400 million years after the Big Bang that launched the universe, according to Coe. While Webb revealed that one object is actually two, the nature of what the new telescope sees remains a mystery.
Webb’s team is committed to publishing the science in progress, and as such, this finding has not yet been peer-reviewed and is still in preliminary discussion. If Webb has spotted two galaxies, there’s an even more intriguing possibility: a galactic merger could be underway in the early universe.
“If this is the farthest fusion, I will be really happy,” said Tiger Yu-Yang Hsiao, who holds a doctorate. Johns Hopkins University graduate student, in the same statement. But whether Webb is looking at two star clusters or two galaxies, there are clear differences between them: one set of objects is slightly bluer with lots of stars, and the other is slightly redder with lots of dust.
Webb’s use of gravitational lensing is not new to astronomy, but harnessing the ability of massive objects to bend light will bring new insights with the telescope’s sensitive instruments. Webb is optimized for observing the early universe, which is rapidly receding from us in infrared wavelengths.
The 20 years of space observations Webb predicts will greatly expand our catalog of early galaxies from “just dozens” of objects to many more, said Rebecca Larson, a National Science Foundation fellow and Ph.D. graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Studying them can help us understand how they evolved into ones like the galaxy we live in today, and also, how the universe evolved over time,” Larson said in the same statement. (opens in a new tab). She added that she looks forward to the time when Webb can create “deep fields” from a single point in the sky, as Hubble has done on several occasions, as this will uncover even more objects in the primitive universe.
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