NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has discovered a protocluster of seven galaxies, confirming the formation and assembly of galaxies that were previously beyond reach. The protocluster was confirmed at a distance referred to as redshift 7.9, or 650 million years after the big bang. The data collected by Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) allowed astronomers to confirm the galaxies’ collective distance and high velocities at which they are moving within a halo of dark matter, more than two million miles per hour. The spectral data allowed astronomers to model and map the future development of the gathering group, all the way to our time in the modern universe. The prediction is that the protocluster will eventually resemble the Coma Cluster, one of the densest known galaxy collections with thousands of members. The research team anticipates that future collaboration between Webb and NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will yield even more results on early galaxy clusters.
The seven galaxies highlighted in this image from the NASA/ESA/CSA Telescope have been confirmed to be at a distance that astronomers refer to as redshift 7.9, which correlates to 650 million years after the big bang. This makes them the earliest galaxies yet to be spectroscopically confirmed as part of a developing cluster.
The seven galaxies confirmed by Webb were first established as candidates for observation using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Frontier Fields program. The program dedicated Hubble time to observations using gravitational lensing, to observe very distant galaxies in detail. However, because Hubble cannot detect light beyond near-infrared, there is only so much detail it can see. Webb picked up the investigation, focusing on the galaxies scouted by Hubble and gathering detailed spectroscopic data in addition to imagery.
Astronomers used Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument to precisely measure the distances and determine that the galaxies are part of a developing cluster. Galaxy YD4, previously estimated to be at a further distance based on imaging data alone, was able to be more accurately placed at the same redshift as the other galaxies. Before Webb, astronomers did not have high resolution imaging or spectral infrared data available to do this type of science.
At extreme distances, astronomers use the redshift reference to account for the fact that, as the universe expands, wavelengths of light are stretched and “shifted” to redder wavelengths, which are longer. Shorter wavelengths, for example ultraviolet and X-ray, are toward the bluer end of the electromagnetic spectrum. So extreme distances in the early universe are referenced by how much the light emitted there has been shifted as it travelled through space to be detected by a telescope.
The results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Webb is the largest, most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope’s launch service, using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 adaptations for the Webb mission and for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the workhorse spectrograph NIRSpec and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.
Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).