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At Science News: How James Webb Space Telescope data have already revealed surprises


The first image contains a galaxy cluster’s past and recent star birth in more remote galaxies.

Lisa Grossman writes:

Massimo Pascale wasn’t planning to study the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. But as soon as he saw the cluster glittering in the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, he and his colleagues couldn’t help themselves.

“We were like, we have to do something,” says Pascale, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. “We can’t stop ourselves from analyzing this data. It was so exciting.”

JWST deep field image of SMACS 0723 with lots of galaxies visible
It took astronomers mere days to dig insights out of the first public image from JWST, which shows a massive galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 and many more distant galaxies behind it.

Cluster collision

When the image of SMACS 0723 was released in a White House briefing on July 11, most of the focus went to extremely distant galaxies in the background (SN: 7/11/22). But smack in the middle of the image is SMACS 0723 itself, a much closer cluster of galaxies about 4.6 billion light-years from Earth. Its mass bends light from even farther away, making more distant objects appear magnified, as if their light had traveled through the lens of another cosmic-sized telescope.

The light from the most distant galaxy in this image started its journey to JWST about 13.3 billion years ago — “almost at the dawn of the universe,” says astrophysicist Guillaume Mahler of Durham University in England…

Pascale’s and Mahler’s teams each started by taking inventory of the distant galaxies that appear stretched and distorted in the image. The light from some of those galaxies is warped such that multiple images of the same galaxy appear in different places. Mapping those multiply imaged galaxies is a sensitive probe of the way mass is spread around the cluster. That, in turn, can reveal where the cluster contains dark matter, the invisible, mysterious substance that makes up the majority of the mass in the universe (SN: 9/10/20).

“The main thing that limits the study of star formation in galaxies is the quality of the data,” says astrophysicist Adam Carnall of the University of Edinburgh. But with the vastly improved data from JWST, he says, he and his team were able to measure the ages of stars in those remote galaxies.

“The ability to look at these small, faint galaxies … gives you a sense of how all galaxies must look when they start forming stars,” Carnall says.

Scientists hope to use JWST to find the first instances of star formation ever. Other early results suggest they’re already getting close.

Full article at Science News.

The “vastly improved data from JWST” is making this an exciting time to be an astronomer. We can look forward to a rich harvest of new observational discoveries about our unfolding universe as more data is analyzed.

These people are actually astronomers? Just out of high school? “We were like, we have to do something,” says Pascale, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley.' Translation: Dude! We're real astronomers! We've got to do something! "But we can wait a week. The weather's good and I need to go on vacation." Senior astronomer walks in: "Gentlemen. What is going on? Get to work! Analyze the data! Advance the record. I'll not tolerate lazy people and half-hearted attempts. Do you understand? Astronomy is a commitment, not a hobby. Be astronomers!" relatd

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