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SYFY WIRE Farscape

JWST Spies Most Distant Known Galaxy from Just 290 Million Years After the Big Bang

Galaxies don't get much older than this.

By Cassidy Ward

In space exploration, like in many things, everyone wants to go farther and faster. In the 1999 space adventure Farscape (streaming now on Peacock), fictional astronaut John Crichton gets more than he bargained for when he straps himself inside an experimental spacecraft for a test flight around the planet. He was supposed to use the Earth’s gravitational influence to slingshot his spacecraft to incredible speeds. Instead, he fell into a wormhole and flung himself to the far reaches of the galaxy. That’s impressive, and it makes for great TV, but it’s peanuts compared to the exploratory distances achieved by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The Milky Way, our humble galaxy, is about 100,000 light-years across. You can’t go any farther than that and still be inside the galaxy, but JWST is gathering photons from galaxies billions of light-years away. Recently, an international team of astronomers identified the most distant galaxy ever discovered, nestled inside JWST data.

For More on the James Webb Space Telescope:
JWST Explores Possible Sign of Alien Life on Exoplanet K2-18 b
JWST Provides a Weather Report from the Exoplanet Wasp-43 b
JWST Spies Oldest Black Hole Ever Found at the Fringes of the Known Universe

JWST Breaks the Record for Farthest and Oldest Observed Galaxy

Distant Galaxy JWST

The JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) program was designed to probe some of the most distant (and thereby oldest) light in the observable universe, revealing new details about the adolescence of reality. A series of observations in October 2023 and January 2024 revealed a galaxy from less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, during a period known as cosmic dawn. “These galaxies join a small but growing population of galaxies from the first half billion years of cosmic history where we can really probe the stellar populations and the distinctive patterns of chemical elements within them,” said Cambridge astronomer Dr. Francesco D’Eugenio, in a statement.

Initial observations of the record-breaking galaxy, dubbed JADES-GS-z14-0, had some noise which made astronomers skeptical of its age. Additional observations confirmed it actually is the oldest known galaxy, with a measured redshift of 14.32. When light travels between a blade of grass and your eye, it does it at a pretty consistent rate and frequency. Across short distances, light can be trusted to maintain its integrity, but things get weird across cosmic scales. As light crosses intergalactic distances, it's traveling through a spacetime which is constantly expanding.

As light travels from its point of origin, spacetime expands and stretches its wavelength toward the redder parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Using JWST’s powerful infrared instruments, astronomers can measure the spectrum of distant galaxies whose light has been stretched into the infrared. Redshift is a measure of how much the light has been stretched, which tells astronomers where it originated in both space and time. JADES-GS-z14-0 returned a redshift of 14.32, corresponding to about 290 million years after the beginning, and smashing the previous record for the most distant (and oldest) galaxy ever seen.

Observations of galaxies like JADES-GS-z14-0 provide a clearer picture into the adolescence of the universe and the formation of the very first galaxies. It’s the sort of exploration that John Crichton could only have dreamed of.

Catch Farscape, the complete series, streaming now on Peacock.