James Webb discovers the most distant galaxy ever observed in its first week

James Webb is a time machine, peering closer to the Big Bang than we've ever seen.
Chris Young
The galaxy GLASS-z13.Naidu & Oesch et al.

The James Webb Space Telescope has provided a window into eons past, capturing a new image that shows the oldest galaxy ever observed.

Using its incredibly sensitive NIRCam instrument, the infrared space observatory found a 13.5 billion-year-old galaxy only days after its science operations began, according to two new preprint papers.

Essentially, Webb is allowing us to peer at a galaxy that is alien, not only because of its distance from Earth, but also because it is from a distant era — a time only 300 million years after the Big Bang.

This is one of the main mission goals of Webb — to observe the earliest galaxies and shed new light on the formation of the universe.

GLASS-z13: The oldest, most distant galaxy ever observed

NASA revealed the first stunning James Webb images last week. Since that time, the James Webb team has also revealed images of Jupiter and of the spiral galaxy Messier 74 (M74). Now, it has shown the world a new image of a distant galaxy whose light it took 13.5 billion years to reach James Webb.

The galaxy, named GLASS-z13, beats the previous record for the most distant and oldest galaxy ever detected by 100 million years. The previous record was held by a galaxy called GN-Z1, which was detected 13.4 billion lightyears away by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2016.

James Webb discovers the most distant galaxy ever observed in its first week
James Webb also recently captured an image of the spiral galaxy  Messier 74. Source: NASA/ESA/CSA/STSCI/Judy Schmidt

Scientists from the Harvard and Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics released two preprint articles about the new discovery on Wednesday, July 20. In their papers, they explained that they also detected another galaxy of a similar age, called GLASS-z11.

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The researchers said that both newly-detected galaxies are small compared to the Milky Way. GLASS-z13 is roughly 1,600 light-years wide, GLASS z-11 is approximately 2,300 light-years, and the Milky Way is 100,000 lightyears in diameter. This is to be expected, as the Milky Way, which is more than 13 billion years old itself, has had much more time to accumulate mass by cannibalizing smaller galaxies.

James Webb has much more to offer

The scientists do still want to conduct more research to verify their findings. In an interview with New Scientist, one of the scientists, Rohan Naidu, said "we found two very compelling candidates for extremely distant galaxies. If these galaxies are at the distance we think they are, the universe is only a few hundred million years old at that point."

Still, the new discovery is all the more tantalizing given the fact that James Webb is only at the beginning of its science operations. Hubble's record-breaking discovery came from a space telescope reaching its limit and relatively near the end of its lifespan. James Webb, on the other hand, has only just gotten started. The space observatory is expected to last at least five and a half year, and it could operate for a decade. Astronomers and space enthusiasts worldwide will have much more to enjoy over the coming years.

That means it will likely find many more candidates for the earliest and most distant galaxies ever observed. The closer we get to the Big Bang, the better we understand exactly how the universe was formed and how it came to be.

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