In the dance of dark matter, NASA’s Deep Space Observatory has captured light bending in the distant universe.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s massive mirror used the gravity of the galaxy cluster to look at a known galaxy in the background, but there’s a twist: New research published Wednesday (October 26) suggests Webb may have been observing two galaxies, not one. (The area has been imaged before by the Hubble Space Telescope, but this new view is sharper than ever.)
“We are actively discussing whether these are two galaxies or two groups of stars within a galaxy,” Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Dan Koo, a near-infrared webcam instrument scientist, said in a NASA statement. (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 image of “pillars of creation” taken by the James Webb Space Telescope is making astronomers clamor
Hubble saw the objects, found 10 years ago and called MACS0647-JD, as a “pale red dot” that formed just 400 million years after the Big Bang that launched the universe, according to Kuo. While Webb revealed that one object was actually two, the nature of what the new telescope sees remains a mystery.
Webb’s team is committed to releasing the science in progress, and as such, this finding has not yet been reviewed and is still under early discussion. If Webb detects two galaxies, there’s an even more interesting possibility: a galactic merger may be in progress in the early universe.
“If this is the farthest fusion, I will be really happy,” said Tiger Yu Yang Hsiao, Ph.D. a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, in the same statement. But whether Webb is observing two star clusters or two galaxies, there are distinct differences between them: one cluster is a bit bluer with lots of stars, and the other is a little red with lots of dust.
Webb’s use of a gravitational lens is not new to astronomy, but exploiting the ability of massive objects to bend light will bring new insights with sensitive telescope instruments. Webb has been improved to look at the early universe, which is rapidly receding from us in infrared wavelengths.
Rebecca Larson, a National Science Foundation associate and doctoral student, said Webb’s prediction of 20 years of space observations would significantly expand our catalog of early galaxies from just “dozens” of objects to many others. Graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Studying them can help us understand how they evolved into galaxies like the one we live in today, as well as how the universe evolved through time,” Larson said in the same statement. (Opens in a new tab). She added that she is looking forward to when Webb can create “deep fields” in one spot in the sky, as Hubble has done several times, as this will lead to more objects being discovered in the early universe.
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