Researchers, using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, have observed that galaxies in the early universe exhibit an unusual trend—they are often flat and elongated, resembling surfboards or pool noodles rather than the more common round shapes like volleyballs or frisbees. Lead author Viraj Pandya, a NASA Hubble Fellow at Columbia University, noted that approximately 50 to 80% of the studied galaxies appear flattened in two dimensions.
This discovery challenges expectations, as these flat, elongated galaxies seem to be prevalent in the early universe, contrasting with their rarity in closer cosmic proximity. The observations were derived from the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey, analyzing near-infrared images delivered by the James Webb Space Telescope. The galaxies in question are estimated to have existed when the universe was between 600 million to 6 billion years old.
Diverse Shapes Unveiled in Distant Galaxies through NASA’s CEERS Survey.
Researchers examining distant galaxies through NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey have identified a diverse array of shapes dating back to when the universe was 600 million to 6 billion years old. While elongated shapes, resembling surfboards and pool noodles, dominate, there are also sphere-shaped galaxies, like volleyballs, and frisbee-shaped ones.
Sphere-shaped galaxies are the least common, appearing as compact entities on the cosmic “ocean.” Frisbee-shaped galaxies, comparable in size to surfboards and pool noodles, become more prevalent closer to the cosmic “shore.” Speculating on the past, co-author Haowen Zhang suggests our Milky Way might have resembled a surfboard if we could rewind billions of years, a hypothesis supported by estimates of its mass during that era derived from Webb’s new evidence.
Webb’s 3D Classifications Illuminate the Diversity of Distant Galaxies.
Witness the cosmic tapestry through NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the CEERS Survey, capturing a stunning array of distant galaxies. Predominantly, these celestial wonders manifest as flat and elongated forms reminiscent of pool noodles or surfboards (top row). Following closely are the graceful, thin, and circular disk-like galaxies, resembling frisbees (lower left and center). Among the rarest sightings are the spherical galaxies, akin to volleyballs, occupying the smallest fraction of detections (lower right). This image galactic showcase provides glimpses into a bygone era, with these galaxies estimated to have flourished when the universe was a mere 600 million to 6 billion years old.
These distant galaxies, captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the CEERS Survey, represent the precursors to more massive galaxies, including our own, and are notably less massive than nearby spirals and ellipticals. Kartheik Iyer, a co-author and NASA Hubble Fellow at Columbia University, explains that the early universe offered galaxies less time to grow, making the identification of additional categories for these early galaxies particularly exciting. The team leveraged Webb’s sensitivity, high-resolution imagery, and infrared specialization to efficiently characterize many CEERS galaxies, modeling their 3D geometries.
Acknowledging the crucial role played by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Viraj Pandya notes that their work builds upon decades of extensive research. Webb’s capabilities go further, expanding the scope of distant galaxies beyond Hubble’s reach and unveiling the early universe in unprecedented detail, contributing significantly to ongoing efforts in understanding galactic evolution over cosmic time.
Webb’s images of the early universe act as a transformative wave of evidence, expanding our understanding. Co-author Marc Huertas-Company notes that while Hubble highlighted elongated galaxies, questions persisted about the potential enhancement with infrared sensitivity. Webb, however, confirmed that Hubble’s observations were comprehensive and, importantly, unveiled a multitude of distant galaxies with similar shapes, offering intricate details.
Despite these breakthroughs, there remain knowledge gaps. Researchers seek a larger Webb sample size to refine properties and locations of distant galaxies, alongside ongoing model adjustments for precise geometries. As co-author Elizabeth McGrath emphasizes, these are early results, and deeper data analysis is crucial to unravel the intricacies of these fascinating cosmic trends.