(CNN) — 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 see the faint light of impossibly distant galaxies when they glow in infrared light, a wavelength invisible to the human eye. Webb is a crucial tool that will help astronomers better understand how galaxies formed and evolved in the early days of the universe.
The operations center for the telescope is located in Baltimore City, amon the Johns Hopkins campus.
The telescope captured an image of a galaxy cluster called MACS0647 and distant galaxy MACS0647-JD. The cluster appears as a dazzling grouping of galaxies that seem to glow like precious gems against the dark backdrop 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 the more distant objects behind.
Small boxes were used to locate galaxy MACS0647-JD, and more detailed images of the galaxy are arranged along the right side of the image. The cluster essentially triple lensed the galaxy, magnifying it and making it appear in three different places in 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. The new Webb image of the galaxy revealed a surprise – there are two distinct features.
“With Hubble, it was just this faint red dot. We could tell it was really small, just a tiny galaxy in the first 400 million years of the universe,” Coe, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute for the European Space Agency and Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said in a NASA -Publication.
“Now we’re looking with Webb and we’re able to resolve TWO objects! We are actively debating whether these are two galaxies or two star clusters within one galaxy. We don’t know, but these are the questions Webb is asking designed to help us answer.”
The two objects differ in color, with one being more blue and the other more red. The colors indicate different gases. While the blue object indicates young star formation, the red object is dusty and older. Astronomers believe that the two objects in the galaxy image could indicate a merger of two galaxies.
“It’s really interesting that we’re seeing two structures in such a small system,” Tiger Yu-Yang Hsiao, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. “We could be witnessing a galaxy merger in the very early Universe. If this is the furthest away fusion, I’m going to be really excited!”
The research team has written a paper about the discovery of the potential merger, but like so many of Webb’s first observations since scientific operations began in July, the results have yet to go through the peer-review process. The team also plans to conduct a more detailed study of MACS0647-JD in January.
Each Webb observation reveals previously hidden and unseen aspects of the universe as the telescope is able to spy faint infrared light through thick interstellar dust. Astronomers are excited about the telescope’s discovery potential, as the observatory only began its estimated 20-year mission a few months ago.
“Until that point, we weren’t really able to study galaxies in the early Universe in detail. Before Webb, we only had dozens of them,” Rebecca Larson, a National Science Foundation grantee and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement. “Studying them can help us understand how they evolved into those like the galaxy we live in today. And also how the universe has evolved over time.”
The CNN Wire
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