Astronomers have possibly discovered six “monster” galaxies dating back to within 600 million years of the Big Bang.
The James Webb Space Telescope has identified several older galaxies, some within just 300 million years of the birth of the universe. Galaxies as massive and mature as these suggest that they were on cosmic fast-track from the get-go, stunning scientists.
“While most galaxies in this era are still small and only gradually growing larger over time, there are a few monsters that fast-track to maturity. Why this is the case or how this would work is unknown,” lead researcher Ivo Labbe of Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology told The Associated Press in an email.
The six objects each weigh billions of times more than our own sun. In one, the total weight of all its stars may be as much as 100 billion times greater than our sun, according to researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
According to Labbe, these galaxies are unique in that they appear to be extremely dense — compacting as many stars as the milky way in a relatively small space.
Labbe initially did not believe that the results were real — that there couldn’t be mature galaxies like the Milky Way so early in time. They still need to be confirmed, he said.
The objects appeared so big and bright that some members of the team thought they had made a mistake.
“We were mind-blown, kind of incredulous,” Labbe said.
Pennsylvania State University’s Joel Leja, who took part in the study, described the new bodies as “universe breakers.”
“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,” Leja said in a statement. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.”
Leja said it’s possible that some of the objects might not be galaxies, but obscured supermassive black holes.
While some may prove to be smaller, “odds are good at least some of them will turn out to be” galactic giants, Labbe said. “The next year will tell us.”
One early lesson from Webb is “to let go of your expectations and be ready to be surprised,” he said.
Data about the galaxies were among the first transmitted from the $10 billion space telescope, launched last year to succeed the Hubble Space Telescope, which is approaching the 33rd anniversary of its launch.
The much stronger Webb can see through clouds of dust with its infrared vision, revealing galaxies previously hidden.
Scientists hope to eventually observe the first stars and galaxies formed following the creation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago.