Webb Detects Galaxies Forming in the Early Universe Feeding on Cold Gas :: NASANET

Webb Detects Galaxies Forming in the Early Universe Feeding on Cold Gas :: NASANET
Webb Detects Galaxies Forming in the Early Universe Feeding on Cold Gas :: NASANET
This illustration shows a galaxy that formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, when the gas was a mix of transparent and opaque during the Reionization Era. Data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows that cold gas is falling onto these galaxies. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Researchers analyzing data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have identified three galaxies that could be actively forming when the universe was only 400 to 600 million years old. Webb’s data show that these galaxies are surrounded by gas that researchers suspect is almost exclusively hydrogen and helium, the first elements to exist in the cosmos. Webb’s instruments are so sensitive that they were able to detect an unusual amount of dense gas surrounding these galaxies. It is likely that this gas will end up driving the formation of new stars in galaxies.

“These galaxies are like bright islands in a sea of ​​opaque, neutral gas,” explained Kasper Heintz, lead author and assistant professor of astrophysics at the Cosmic Dawn Center (DAWN) at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “Without Webb, we wouldn’t be able to observe these very early galaxies, much less learn so much about their formation.”

“We are moving away from an image of galaxies as isolated ecosystems. At this stage in the history of the universe, all galaxies are intimately connected to the intergalactic medium with their filaments and structures of pristine gas,” added Simone Nielsen, co-author and PhD student also working at DAWN.

In Webb’s images, the galaxies look like faint red blobs, which is why the additional data, known as spectra, was critical to the team’s conclusions. These spectra show that the light from these galaxies is being absorbed by large amounts of neutral hydrogen gas. “The gas must be very widespread and cover a very large fraction of the galaxy,” said Darach Watson, co-author and DAWN professor. “This suggests that we are seeing the assembly of neutral hydrogen gas into galaxies. “That gas will cool, clump together and form new stars.”

The universe was a very different place several hundred million years after the Big Bang during a period known as the Age of Reionization. The gas between stars and galaxies was largely opaque. Gas throughout the universe only became completely transparent about a billion years after the Big Bang. The stars in the galaxies helped heat and ionize the gas around them, eventually causing the gas to become completely transparent.

By comparing Webb’s data with star formation models, the researchers also found that these galaxies have primarily populations of young stars. “The fact that we are seeing large reserves of gas also suggests that galaxies have not yet had enough time to form most of their stars,” Watson added.

This is just the beginning

Webb is not only meeting the mission objectives that drove its development and launch, it is exceeding them. “Before Webb it was impossible to obtain images and data of these distant galaxies,” explained Gabriel Brammer, co-author and associate professor at DAWN. “Plus, we had a good idea of ​​what we were going to find when we first glimpsed the data: we were almost making discoveries by eye.”

There are many more questions to be addressed. Where, specifically, is the gas? How much is found near the centers of galaxies – or in their surroundings? Is the gas pristine or is it already populated with heavier elements? Important research remains ahead. “The next step is to build large statistical samples of galaxies and quantify in detail the prevalence and prominence of their features,” Heintz said.

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