The reach of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is astounding, and its ability to see back to nearer to the Big Bang than ever before is bound to reveal new secrets about the universe.
One of these secrets has left the astronomical community amazed and perplexed. The JWST has discovered relatively mature galaxies that shouldn’t have existed so soon after the Big Bang. More data will need to be collected, and the ages of these extremely distant galaxies will have to be scrutinized. But if the data proves to be correct, cosmologists will have to virtually remake the Big Bang model to account for these galaxies forming so quickly and being so massive and bright.
There is some speculation that supermassive black holes at the centers of these incredibly ancient galaxies are contributing to their unusual brightness. This could be due to relativistic jets of super heated gas emitted from the spinning poles of their core supermassive black holes. The thing is, current models of the early universe do not predict that supermassive black holes should have existed at that time. So, cosmologists have their work cut out for them to explain all this new data that seems to be in direct conflict with our present understanding of the evolution of the universe.
Another find more in line with what cosmologists have predicted but have yet to discover is evidence of supermassive stars, called "Population III" (Pop III) stars. The prediction is based on the fact that the only elements that existed in the very early age of the universe were predominantly hydrogen, a little bit of helium and a tiny fraction of lithium. This means that the first stars that formed consisted of practically pure hydrogen. This purity and the density of the universe at these early stages made it likely that the first stars to form would be very massive and “metal poor." In astrophysics, metals are defined as any elements heavier than helium.
The JWST has discovered a sort of “smoking gun” for these elusive early universe Goliath stars that were at least as massive as 100 Suns, with the very first ones possibly reaching 100,000 solar masses. Such massive stars fused hydrogen in their cores so fast that they lasted “only” 2 to 5 million years before going super- or hyper-nova. When these stars exploded, they seeded the interstellar medium with heavier elements which eventually led to the formation of increasingly metal-rich stars. The more metal rich the interstellar medium got, the less Pop III stars could form.
Eventually, the metallicity of the interstellar medium reached a level that Pop III stars could no longer be generated. This is why astronomers haven’t seen evidence of them until…maybe…now.
The JWST has found ionized helium in a galaxy that formed within a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Ionized helium in the early universe is in line with predictions associated with the morphology of Pop III stars. This is the smoking gun that may contribute empirical evidence that Pop III stars did indeed exist in the early universe. We still haven’t seen any Pop III stars, but this is the first actual evidence they once may have existed.
Stay tuned as JWST continues to probe the early beginnings of the universe.
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