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JWST detects oldest ‘dead’ galaxy in the known universe — and its death could defy cosmology

Astronomers using the JWST have detected the oldest “dead” galaxy ever detected, at just 700 million years after the Big Bang. The stalled-out relic flouts explanation by our current understanding of the early cosmos.

 Astronomers using JWST (the James Webb Space Telescope) have discovered the oldest “dead” galaxy ever seen — but the cosmic carcass has left scientists baffled as it disregards explanation by our current knowledge of the early cosmos. The galaxy abruptly and mysteriously stopped star formation when the cosmos was just 700 million years old, when innumerable stars were birthing elsewhere in the universe due to an abundance of pristine gas and dust.

The galaxy, christened JADES-GS-z7-01-QU and described in a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday (March 6, 2024), provides astrophysicists with a peek into the elusive underpinnings of galaxy evolution in a primeval universe, including why galaxies halt forming new stars and whether forces behind their starbursts alter across epochs.

“Galaxies need a rich supply of gas to form new stars, and the early universe was like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” study lead author Tobias Looser (a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology), said in a statement. Current models cannot explain how this newfound galaxy not only took shape in less than a billion years post the Big Bang, but also shut down its star factory so hurriedly. “It’s only later in the universe that we [usually] start to see galaxies stop forming stars,” study co-author Francesco D’Eugenio, also a researcher at University of Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology, said in the statement. In contrast, a handful of other “dead” galaxies found elsewhere appear to have stopped forming new stars when the cosmos was about 3 billion years old, the researchers said.

“Everything seems to happen faster and more dramatically in the early universe,” added Looser. “And that might include galaxies moving from a star-forming phase to dormant or quenched.” To unearth JADES-GS-z7-01-QU, Looser and his colleagues employed the James Webb Space Telescope’s powerful infrared vision to peer through the thick veil of dust obscuring the earliest substances in the universe. Apart from being the oldest “dead” or “quenched” galaxy spotted so far, the newfound galaxy is also several times lighter than other similarly dormant galaxies previously found in the early universe.

JWST’s data suggest the galaxy strongly formed stars for anywhere between 30 million to 90 million years before it hurriedly shut off, although exactly what ended it is still unknown. A couple of different factors that can slow down or extinguish star formation are known to astronomers. For example, turbulence inside a galaxy, like radiation emitted by a supermassive black hole (SMBH), can push gas out of the galaxy and starve it of the gas reservoir it depends on to form stars.

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