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The James Webb Space Telescope looks back into the early Universe and sees galaxies like our Milky Way

The James Webb Space Telescope looks back into the early Universe and sees galaxies like our Milky Way

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Locked galaxy simulation

This simulation shows both the formation of star bars (left) and the bar-driven gas inflows (right). Star bars play an important role in galaxy evolution, channeling gas into a galaxy’s central regions where it is rapidly converted into new stars at a rate typically 10 to 100 times that of the rest of the galaxy. Bars also indirectly help grow supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies by partially channeling the gas. Photo credit: Francoise Combes, Paris Observatory

New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) show for the first time stellar barred galaxies—elongated features of stars that extend from the galaxies’ centers to their outer disks—at a time when the universe was only 25% of its size The present made the age. The discovery of so-called barred galaxies, similar to our Milky Way, so early in the universe will force astrophysicists to refine their theories of galaxy evolution.

Before JWST, images from the Hubble Space Telescope had never detected bars at such young epochs. In a Hubble image, one galaxy, EGS-23205, is little more than a disc-shaped speck, but in the corresponding JWST image taken last summer, it’s a beautiful spiral galaxy with a clear star bar.

“I looked at this data once and said, ‘Let’s drop everything else!'” said Shardha Jogee, professor of astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. “Barely visible in Hubble data, the bars just popped up in the JWST image and showed the tremendous power of the JWST to see the underlying structure in galaxies,” she said, describing data from the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), led by Steven Finkelstein, a professor at UT Austin.

Comparison of Hubble and Webb galaxies

JWST’s ability to map galaxies at high resolution and longer infrared wavelengths than Hubble allows it to see through dust and reveal the underlying structure and mass of distant galaxies. This can be seen in these two images of galaxy EGS23205 as it appeared about 11 billion years ago. In the HST image (left, taken with the near-infrared filter), the galaxy is little more than a disk-shaped blob obscured by dust and affected by the glare of young stars, but in the corresponding JWST mid-infrared image (taken last summer), it is a beautiful spiral galaxy with a clear star bar. Photo credit: NASA/CEERS/University of Texas at Austin

The team identified another barred galaxy, EGS-24268, also around 11 billion years ago, meaning that two barred galaxies exist further back in time than any previously discovered.

In a paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, they highlight these two galaxies and show examples of four other barred galaxies from more than 8 billion years ago.

“For this study, we’re looking at a new regime where nobody has used this type of data or done this type of quantitative analysis before,” said Yuchen “Kay” Guo, a graduate student who led the analysis, “so everything is so new . It’s like walking into a forest where no one has ever gone before.”

Bars play an important role in galaxy evolution, channeling gas into the central regions and thus promoting star formation.

“Ingots solve the supply chain problem in galaxies,” Jogee said. “Just as we need to move raw materials from the port to factories inland that make new products, a bar of gas powerfully transports gas to the central region, where the gas is rapidly being converted into new stars, at a rate typically 10 to 100 times faster than the rest of the galaxy.”

Bars also help grow supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies by partially channeling the gas.

This simulation shows both the formation of star bars (left) and the bar-driven gas inflows (right). Star bars play an important role in galaxy evolution, channeling gas into a galaxy’s central regions where it is rapidly converted into new stars, typically at a rate 10 to 100 times that of the rest of the galaxy. Bars also indirectly help grow supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies by partially channeling the gas. Photo credit: Francoise Combes, Paris Observatory

The discovery of bars at such early epochs shakes galaxy evolution scenarios in several ways.

“This early bar discovery means that galaxy evolution models now have a new way across bars to accelerate the production of new stars in early epochs,” Jogee said.

And the mere existence of these early bars challenges theoretical models, as they need to get the physics of the galaxy right to predict the correct frequency of bars. The team will test different models in their next work.

Six early locked galaxies by Webb

Montage of JWST images showing six exemplary barred galaxies, two of which represent the longest lookback times quantitatively identified and characterized to date. The labels at the top left of each figure show each galaxy’s backward time, ranging from 8.4 to 11 billion years (Gyr) ago, when the universe was only 40% to 20% of its current age. Photo credit: NASA/CEERS/University of Texas at Austin

JWST is better at revealing structures in distant galaxies than Hubble for two reasons: First, its larger mirror gives it better light-gathering capabilities, allowing it to see farther and with higher resolution. Second, it can see through dust better because it observes at longer infrared wavelengths than Hubble.

Students Eden Wise and Zilei Chen played key roles in the research, visually reviewing hundreds of galaxies looking for those that appeared to have bars, which helped narrow the list down to a few dozen for the other researchers to use a more intensive mathematical analysis could analyze approach.

Reference: “First Look at z > 1 Bars in the Rest-Frame Near-Infrared with JWST Early CEERS Imaging” by Yuchen Guo, Shardha Jogee, Steven L. Finkelstein, Zilei Chen, Eden Wise, Micaela B. Bagley, Guillermo Barro, Stijn Wuyts, Dale D Kocevski, Jeyhan S Kartaltepe, Elizabeth J McGrath, Henry C Ferguson, Bahram Mobasher, Mauro Giavalisco, Ray A Lucas, Jorge A Zavala, Jennifer M Lotz, Norman A Grogin, Marc Huertas-Company, Jesús Vega-Ferrero, Nimish P. Hathi, Pablo Arrabal Haro, Mark Dickinson, Anton M. Koekemoer, Casey Papovich, Nor Pirzkal, LY Aaron Yung, Bren E. Backhaus, Eric F. Bell, Antonello Calabrò, Nikko J Cleri, Rosemary T Coogan, MC Cooper, Luca Costantin, Darren Croton, Kelcey Davis, Alexander de la Vega, Avishai Dekel, Maximilien Franco, Jonathan P Gardner, Benne W Holwerda, Taylor A Hutchison, Viraj Pandya, Pablo G. Pérez-González, Swara Ravindranath, Caitlin Rose, Jonathan R. Trump, and Weichen Wang, Accepted, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
arXiv:2210.08658

Other UT Austin co-authors include Steven Finkelstein, Micaela Bagley, and Maximilien Franco. Dozens of co-authors from other institutions come from the US, UK, Japan, Spain, France, Italy, Australia and Israel.

Funding for this research was provided in part by the Roland K. Blumberg Endowment in Astronomy, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and NASA. This work drew on resources from the Texas Advanced Computing Center, including Frontera, the most powerful supercomputer at a US university.

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