James Webb Space Telescope Unveils Light from Universe’s Earliest Stars

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In a world-first, a group of astronomers have observed starlight from very early active galaxies, or quasars. Thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, we are able to observe stellar populations in quasar light at a staggering distance of 12.8 and 12.9 billion light-years away. This brings us back to a time just 870 and 880 million years post-Big Bang, a period that terrestrial science has never managed to peek into before. This discovery will contribute significantly to our understanding of the evolution of stars, galaxies, and supermassive black holes at their centers.

Quasar HSC J2236+0032 as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Source: Dean, Onoue, Silverman et al.

The Hubble Space Telescope has helped us glimpse stars in active galaxies as far as 10 billion light-years away. But the James Webb has taken us even further – almost to 13 billion light-years, a time when the first stars were forming the first galaxies. Up until this point, our understanding of the evolution of quasars and their host galaxies only extended to the mature years of the Universe, up until our time. But what happened in the early epochs of the Universe’s development remained unknown to us.

It should be noted that in the universe we have studied, quasar mass correlates with the mass of the galaxies they reside in. There are two main hypotheses for why this occurs: either the quasar’s radiation impacts the star-formation activity in host galaxies, or black holes grow proportionately to galaxy growth in a chain of consecutive mergers of smaller galaxies and black holes from their centers.

Observations from James Webb provide invaluable material for studying the evolution of galaxies and quasars in early stages, potentially confirming one hypothesis or the other. But to do so, it is crucial to be able to separate the light from the stars in galaxies from the light from the quasars at their centers, which otherwise outshines all other nearby radiation. After all, we can only learn about the mass of a distant galaxy by analyzing the light from its stellar population. The Webb telescope has now made this possible for objects at unimaginable distances.

Two early Universe quasars, J2236+0032 and J2255+0251, were found to have the same ratio of black hole masses to the masses of their galaxies as in our region of the Universe. The galaxies they resided in at the time had masses 130 billion and 30 billion times greater than the Sun, while the masses of their central black holes were 1.4 billion and 200 million times the mass of the Sun.

Although the results from two observations are not enough to construct a comprehensive theory, the James Webb will continue to study quasars in the early Universe, with such programs already planned and underway.

Author Profile

Vasyl Kolomiiets
Vasyl Kolomiiets
I'm Vasyl Kolomiiets, a seasoned tech journalist regularly contributing to global publications. Having a profound background in information technologies, I seamlessly blended my technical expertise with my passion for writing, venturing into technology journalism. I've covered a wide range of topics including cutting-edge developments and their impacts on society, contributing to leading tech platforms.

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