How to Break the Universe and Other Adventures in the Department of Astronomy
A team of astronomers, including assistant professor Kate Whitaker, recently published research in the journal Nature that many popular publications have said “breaks the universe.” While not literally true, the team, which used the newest trove of data retrieved from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), discovered that very old, very massive galaxies seem to exist on the fringes of the universe—which, according to current astronomical theory, shouldn’t be possible.
“Do I think we broke the universe? Well, no”, says Whitaker, “but this puzzling discovery tells us that something isn’t quite right in our models. This discovery is a learning opportunity, opening completely unexplored parameters in space and impacting our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution at the most fundamental level.”
These six galaxies are about 13.5 billion light-years away, which means that the light the team saw was emitted 13.5 billion years ago. Put another way, the team was able to look back in time 13.5 billion years. This is exciting because the universe itself is only about 14 billion years old, which means that the team was able to observe the universe’s infancy.
It has long been thought that only very young, small galaxies would have existed 13 billion years ago because not enough time would have elapsed since the Big Bang for cosmic dust and gas to accrete into massive galaxies.
And yet, this is exactly what the team seems to have found.
“These galaxies are impossibly massive for their epochs, suggesting an accelerated growth very early on. It would be like seeing a picture of a toddler, when we expected to find infants.”
This upends what many astronomers considered to be largely settled matters. All that extra mass at the fringes of the universe means either the current cosmological models need significant altering or our scientific understanding of galaxy formation in the early universe is incorrect. Both options require rethinking what we know about the universe’s earliest days.
“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,” said Joel Leja assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Pennyslvania State University and one of the paper’s co-authors. “We’ve been informally calling these objects ‘universe breakers’—and they have been living up to their name so far.”
But before throwing out the old astronomy textbooks, the team needs to follow up on their initial observation with more sensitive measurements that can confirm distance and size, and whether or not all of the objects are actually galaxies.