The James Webb telescope found six galaxies that may be too hefty for their age

The masses of the galaxies raise questions about how they got so big so fast

Six images from the James Webb Space Telescope with three on top and three on the bottom. Each shows a different bright, red, dot that is a galaxy.

These images from the James Webb Space Telescope zoom in on six bright, red, extremely distant galaxies that appear to be too massive to exist.

I. Labbé/Swinburne University of Technology, CSA, ESA, NASA.  Image processing: G. Brammer/Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center/University of Copenhagen

The James Webb Space Telescope’s first peek at the distant universe unveiled galaxies that appear too big to exist.

Six galaxies that formed in the universe’s first 700 million years seem to be up to 100 times more massive than standard cosmological theories predict, astronomer Ivo Labbé and colleagues report February 22 in Nature. “Adding up the stars in those galaxies, it would exceed the total amount of mass available in the universe at that time,” says Labbé, of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. “So you know that something is afoot.”

The telescope, also called JWST, released its first view of the early cosmos in July 2022 (SN: 7/11/22). Within days, Labbé and his colleagues had spotted about a dozen objects that looked particularly bright and red, a sign that they could be massive and far away.

“They stand out immediately, you see them as soon as you look at these images,” says astrophysicist Erica Nelson of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Measuring the amount of light each object emits in various wavelengths can give astronomers an idea of how far away each galaxy is, and how many stars it must have to emit all that light. Six of the objects that Nelson, Labbé and colleagues identified look like their light comes from no later than about 700 million years after the Big Bang. Those galaxies appear to hold up to 10 billion times the mass of our sun in stars. One of them might contain the mass of 100 billion suns.

“You shouldn’t have had time to make things that have as many stars as the Milky Way that fast,” Nelson says. Our galaxy contains about 60 billion suns’ worth of stars — and it’s had more than 13 billion years to grow them. “It’s just crazy that these things seem to exist.”

In the standard theories of cosmology, matter in the universe clumped together slowly, with small structures gradually merging to form larger ones. “If there are all these massive galaxies at early times, that’s just not happening,” Nelson says.

One possible explanation is that there’s another, unknown way to form galaxies, Labbé says. “It seems like there’s a channel that’s a fast track, and the fast track creates monsters.”

But it could also be that some of these galaxies host supermassive black holes in their cores, says astronomer Emma Curtis-Lake of the University of Hertfordshire in England, who was not part of the new study. What looks like starlight could instead be light from the gas and dust those black holes are devouring. JWST has already seen a candidate for an active supermassive black hole even earlier in the universe’s history than these galaxies are, she says, so it’s not impossible.

Finding a lot of supermassive black holes at such an early era would also be challenging to explain (SN: 3/16/18). But it wouldn’t require rewriting the standard model of cosmology the way extra-massive galaxies would.

“The formation and growth of black holes at these early times is really not well understood,” she says. “There’s not a tension with cosmology there, just new physics to be understood of how they can form and grow, and we just never had the data before.”

To know for sure what these distant objects are, Curtis-Lake says, astronomers need to confirm the galaxies’ distances and masses using spectra, more precise measurements of the galaxies’ light across many wavelengths (SN: 12/16/22).

JWST has taken spectra for a few of these galaxies already, and more should be coming, Labbé says. “With luck, a year from now, we’ll know a lot more.”

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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