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Looking deep into the past, the JWST’s ardent detectors are revealing extraordinary details of some of the oldest structures of the universe. Previously fuzzy images become sharp at the telescope’s highest resolution. One such re-examination of a robust primordial galaxy has left quite a few astronomers starstruck: Webb has a startling revelation that the single galactic unit is actually six galaxies, crashing together to fashion a deluge of fresh stars.

Way back in 2013 astronomers discovered the earliest star-forming galaxy yet seen using data from the Herschel Space Observatory. Existence of this object christened HFLS3 bursting at the seams with new stars when the universe was just about 850 million years old defied accepted scenarios for how rapidly galaxies could grow. This enormous stellar factory ignited new stars at a rate approx. 2,000 times greater than our Milky Way, despite having approximately the same mass.

Astronomers had always believed that in the universe’s infancy galaxies should not be this big with such a high birth rate. Quite a few teams attempted to image the galaxy again employing the Hubble Space Telescope apart from several ground-based telescopes. Yet the photos vaguely hinted at the rough signatures of other proximate sources—with the possible influence of gravitational lensing, in which colossal objects closer to us warp and magnify the light rays from far away objects behind them.

Now with fresh data, scientists have suggested that HFLS3 is not a single giant starburst galaxy after all. “This galaxy was actually an interacting system of galaxies in the early universe,” states team lead Gareth Jones (Oxford University), “which are still very bright and starbursting, but as a system rather than a single source.”

The fresh observation was part of a James Webb Space Telescope program know as Galaxy Assembly with NIRSpec Integral Field Spectroscopy. Target of this collaboration are 40 of the most far away and colossal galaxies to resolve even the minutest pockets of space around them in great detail. The spectrograph’s Integral Field Unit eyed HFLS3’s radiant neighborhood in September 2022.

Jones led team produced a set of images that displayed brightness across dissimilar wavelengths and fields of view. They then investigated the motions and heating of the gases in the galaxy, and modeled how much effect the gravitational lensing could have had on the perceived light. In the process they reconstructed a far more accurate image of HFLS3.

Jones was expecting to see the characteristic rotational movement of gas observed in similar early galaxies. “But instead of a single rotating [galaxy], we just had lots of little galaxies,” he states. If the analysis is trusted, the bulk of HFLS3 is composed of three pairs of small, closely interacting galaxies. Just one of the three pairs is magnified by two separate foreground galaxies. Given the extraordinarily dense field, scientists propose that the sextuplet system is colliding, causing a surge of new stars.


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