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No, the James Webb Space Telescope hasn’t found the “most ancient galaxy”

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If you followed astronomical community on twitter or perhaps Captain America himselfYou’ve probably heard the story of the latest James Webb Space Telescope find: “the oldest galaxy we’ve ever seen.”

This is exactly what the James Webb Space Telescope promised us. Just a week ago, the collective jaw of the world hit the floor when the first stunning images were discovered. Now the telescope is getting a proper start on its many scientific programsbut researchers already have access to the vast amount of data collected during the JWST commissioning phase and made available ahead of schedule to researchers around the world.

That’s why we found the “oldest galaxy” so quickly. Scientists studied a specific data set in search of distant galaxies and found candidate they named the GL-z13, referring to the current confirmed record holder, GNz11.

There is more work to be done to confirm that GL-z13 is in fact the new record holder – some of them will take longer to point Webb to the galaxy – but even so, several publications have already crowned this galaxy the universal champion.

So how did we get here? And is this “oldest galaxy” ever seen?

Over the past 24 hours, two different research teams have uploaded papers (one here, one here) to arXiv detailing their search for very distant galaxies in the James Webb data.

The “arXiv” website (I pronounce it “ark-siv” because I’m a pagan, but others assure me it’s pronounced “archive”) is a repository of preprints, a place where scientists can leave their research to could be quickly distributed among colleagues. . This is a great place to quickly introduce new research to the world, especially in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, with the caveat that the results are generally not peer-reviewed, an important checkpoint to validate the research and its methods.

I don’t want to ruin the party with the GL-z13, but I do want to be a little careful. By reporting results with such confidence, readers may lose confidence in scientists if GL-z13 is found to be something else entirely. A few astronomers I’ve spoken to think the data is pretty strong, and the galaxy is probably really very (oooo) far away, but until it’s confirmed, GL-z13 can’t claim to be the “oldest galaxy.”

For some, even the name itself is a bit misleading.

You see, GL-Z13 is not really the “oldest galaxy” – it appeared at a time when the universe was barely 330 million years old. Light from that galaxy? Well, yeah, he’s super old. It has come a long way to reach JWST. But the galaxy itself, if confirmed, is likely Jr according to Nick Seymour, an astrophysicist at Curtin University in Western Australia, the galaxy ever seen.

“330 million years after the Big Bang, it can’t be more than 100 million years old at best,” Seymour said. “Therefore, this is indeed an infant galaxy at the dawn of time.”

Rejoicing in record space feats is a matter of course. As a science journalist, I do this almost every day. But when reporting new discoveries, it’s important to convey uncertainty. In the headlines, on social media, in the way we discuss scientific progress. We must set the right benchmark and walk away in this uncertainty. The history of the GL-z13 is beautiful and just getting started. Astronomers now have to study it a lot more to make sure the distances are correct.

“Obviously there is still a lot of work to be done, but this is really kind of a glimpse of how things are going with James Webb,” said Michael Brown, an astrophysicist at Monash University.

Just in April, before Webb started scouring space, Astronomers have announced that they may have discovered the most distant galaxy, HD1.. This galaxy is believed to have originated at a time when the universe was about 330 million years old. At the time, Brown noted that the HD1 title should be used with caution because the data could point to a galaxy billions of light-years closer to Earth. To confirm its distance, as with GL-z13, we need more observations.

Do you know what telescope can do this? You guessed it: JWST.

We are fascinated that records are being broken, but perhaps the most interesting part of all this is that if Webb performs as expected (and seems to work better than scientists even dreamed), the title of “Galaxy’s Oldest” will change hands as often as the WWE 24/7 Hardcore Championship. We will find new galaxies from even more distant times at a rate that we could not even dream of.

If so, I expect that the record will collapse soon.

Updated July 22nd: Changed title, added context to the oldest paragraph in the galaxy.


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