‘Cosmic lighthouses’ that cleared primordial fog identified with JWST | Science & Technology

Scientists working with data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have obtained the first full spectra of some of the earliest starlight in the universe. The images provide the clearest picture yet of very low-mass, newborn galaxies, created less than a billion years after the Big Bang, and suggest the tiny galaxies are central to the cosmic origin story.

The international team of researchers, including two Penn State astrophysicists, published their results today (Feb. 28) in the journal Nature. The spectra reveal some of the first visible light from a period in the universe known as reionization, which was powered by the arrival of the earliest stars and galaxies.

Normal matter in the universe started as a hot, dense fog made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium nuclei, explained Joel Leja, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and author on the paper. As it expanded and cooled, lone protons and electrons started bonding, forming neutral hydrogen for the first time. Then, roughly 500 to 900 million years after the Big Bang, that neutral hydrogen — which predominated in the early universe — began to separate again into ionized gas, spurring the creation of stars and galaxies and lifting the primordial fog so light could travel unimpeded through the cosmos for the first time.

“Something turned on that started pumping out very high energy photons into the intergalactic void,” Leja said. “These sources worked like cosmic lighthouses that burned off the fog of neutral hydrogen. Whatever this was, it was so energetic and so persistent, that the entire universe became re-ionized.”

By analyzing the spectra of young, low-mass galaxies, the scientists demonstrated that small galaxies were strong candidates for the “something” that sparked the reionization of the universe by heating the dense primordial gas around them and ionizing the once-neutral hydrogen.

“If the other low-mass galaxies in the universe are as common and energetic…

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