The James Webb Space Telescope is providing scientists with unprecedented access to the distant universe, using its sensitive infrared vision to gaze into the dawn of time itself. Scientists are amazed and puzzled by what the infancy of the universe, with the discovery of large galaxies that emerged too soon after the Big Bang to be explained by conventional physics, containing supermassive black holes that could not have possibly grown so large so quickly. The discoveries are so hard to reconcile with the conventional understanding of the cosmos, that scientists have even suggested that the universe is actually twice as old as scientists suspected to reconcile the discrepancies that Webb is discovering.
Peppering the backgrounds of astronomical targets are small red dots, which are actually distant galaxies, and of interest to astronomers as they are among the earliest to form in the universe. Astrophysicist Mitch Begelman says, “The astonishing discovery from James Webb is that not only does the universe have these very compact and infrared bright objects, but they’re probably regions where huge black holes already exist. That was thought to be impossible.” Researchers have now formally pointed out what is becoming increasingly obvious; scientists need to come up with novel theories to explain galaxy formation. The research has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
How to build a galaxy
According to the conventional theories, the assembly of large galaxies with well-defined structures such as a central bar and spiral arms, as seen in the Milky Way, takes place through a slow and gradual process of mergers between multiple smaller galaxies. Extra dense clumps of matter in clouds of gas and dust collapsed under the influence of gravity to kickstart nuclear fusion, birthing the first stars. The stellar nurseries that birthed clusters of stars coalsced to form the early galaxies, and it was only towards the end of galaxy assembly that the first supermassive black holes emerged, forming from the exploded remains of the violent ends of stars near the cores of galaxies.
However, Webb has upended the conventional understanding with the discovery of quasars, or quasi-stellar objects — small, compact galaxies from the infancy of the universe that are surrounded by stars, and are actively feeding on the surrounding gas, dust and stellar debris. These are bright supermassive black holes, surrounded by accretion discs of infalling material that are glowing in frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum because of the extreme friction.
Lead author of the paper, Joseph Silk says, “We know these monster black holes exist at the center of galaxies near our Milky Way, but the big surprise now is that they were present at the beginning of the universe as well and were almost like building blocks or seeds for early galaxies. They really boosted everything, like gigantic amplifiers of star formation, which is a whole turnaround of what we thought possible before—so much so that this could completely shake up our understanding of how galaxies form.” The research suggests that supermassive black holes accelerated star formation instead of quenching it, with black hole winds driving away the star forming gas and dust from the central regions of galaxies.