The James Webb Telescope Makes First Scientific Discovery

FThe art is followed by the science. Just over a week after NASA dazzled the world with the first clutch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers working with one of the pictures believe they have found the oldest galaxy ever imaged—one dating back 13.5 billion years, or just 300 million years after the Big Bang, report and others.

A galaxy’s age is determined by its red shift. This is because the wavelength of the light that is reflected into the spectrum is extended as the universe expands. The redder the image, the greater the stretching and the farther—and older—the object in the image is. Rohan Naidu, an astronomer at Harvard Center for Astrophysics led the analysis of the Webb telescope’s deep-field images. They found a galaxy that has a shift which fixes it at 13.5 billion years.

“We’re potentially looking at the most distant starlight ever seen,” Naidu told France 24. Next, they will submit their results for peer-review that could hopefully validate and confirm their discovery.

These things are not as big of a galaxy. The galaxy is approximately 3,000-4,000 light years in diameter and has about one billion stars. Comparatively, the Milky Way is about 100,000 lightyears in diameter and holds an estimated 200billion stars. But seeing something 13.5 billion light years away means we’re seeing it as it looked 13.5 billion years ago. Over the course of time, this small and old galaxy will have combined with nearby stars to create a giant, galactic mass.

The deep field image captured by Webb in which the 13.5-billion-year-old galaxy was spotted.


It’s not just scientific dividends, though, that NASA’s getting from the James Webb telescope. YouGovAmerica surveyed 1,000 Americans and discovered that NASA was outperforming Webb in terms of numbers.

On the whole, just over 70% of Americans have a favorable view of NASA, 13% view the space agency unfavorably, and 16% say they don’t know. Men lead women 76% to 66% in giving NASA the thumbs-up, and—for once—there is no meaningful partisan divide: 79% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans approve of NASA.

The staggering $10 billion Webb price tag seems uncontrived. Sixty percent believe Webb was an excellent or very good investment. Only 26% said it was uncertain and just 13% stated that it was money wasted. The lofty approval numbers might have been inflated somewhat by when the poll was taken—between July 14 and 18—or just when the nation was taking in the first Webb pictures. “Astonishment in the face of beauty,” one subject in the poll told YouGov, according to The Verge. “I was quite overwhelmed.”

The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Register here.

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