The Webb Space Telescope offers a unique look at the first moments of the universe

Alexandra Ferguson

(CNN) — The James Webb Space Telescope has provided astronomers with a glimpse of the universe’s earliest moments in a new image shared Wednesday.

The powerful space observatory is capable of detecting the faint light of incredibly distant galaxies when they shine in infrared light, a wavelength invisible to the human eye. The Webb is a crucial tool that astronomers can use to better understand how galaxies formed and evolved in the early universe.

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The telescope captured an image of a galaxy cluster called MACS0647, as well as the distant galaxy MACS0647-JD. The cluster appears as a dazzling grouping of galaxies that seem to sparkle like precious gems against the dark backdrop of space.

The galaxy cluster MACS0647 bends and amplifies the light of the more distant galaxy MACS0647-JD. Credit: NASA

The most distant galaxy is visible due to a type of observation phenomenon that is due to the cluster. This phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, occurs when foreground galaxies act like a magnifying glass for more distant objects behind.

Small boxes were used to locate the galaxy MACS0647-JD, with more detailed images aligned along the right side of the image. The cluster essentially triple-lenses the galaxy, magnifying it and making it appear in three different places in the image. Each box on the right shows different details of the galaxy.

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Astronomer Dan Coe discovered the galaxy MACS0647-JD 10 years ago with the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb’s new image of the galaxy revealed a surprise: It has two distinct features.

“With Hubble, it was just a pale red dot. We could tell it was really small, just a tiny galaxy in the first 400 million years of the universe,” said Coe, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute for the European Space Agency and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in a NASA statement.

“Now we look with the Webb, and we are able to distinguish TWO objects! We are actively discussing whether it is two galaxies or two groups of stars within one galaxy. We don’t know, but these are the questions the Webb was designed to ask.”

The two objects differ in color, with one being more blue while the other is more red. Colors indicate different gases. While the blue object indicates young star formation, the red object is dusty and older. Astronomers believe that the two objects in the galaxy image may suggest a merger between two galaxies.

“It’s really interesting that we see two structures in such a small system,” Tiger Yu-Yang Hsiao, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. “We could be witnessing a galaxy merger in the very early universe. If it’s the furthest merger, I’ll feel really ecstatic!”

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The research team wrote a paper on the potential merger discovery, but, like many of Webb’s first observations since it began science operations in July, the findings have yet to go through the peer-review process. The team also plans a more detailed study of MACS0647-JD in January.

Each Webb observation reveals hitherto hidden and unseen aspects of the universe, as the telescope has the ability to peer in faint infrared light through thick interstellar dust. Astronomers are excited about the telescope’s potential for discoveries because the observatory only began its estimated 20-year mission a few months ago.

“Until now, we haven’t been able to really study the galaxies of the early universe in great detail. Before the Webb we only had dozens of them,” Rebecca Larson, a National Science Foundation fellow and doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement. “Studying them can help us understand how they evolved into a galaxy like the one we live in today. And also, how the universe evolved over time.”

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