Composite of two close-crop images of the farthest galaxies seen to date

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured two of the most distant galaxies (orange-red objects) ever observed. The galaxy on the right is dated to about 350 million years after the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago.Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image Processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

Using the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have spotted two leading contenders for what could be the most distant galaxy ever seen. Both surfaced in the scrum of preliminary results that were posted online as preprints in the weeks after the telescope’s science operations began in July. After going through extensive scrutiny, including re-evaluation owing to updated calibration of the telescope, the results are now some of the first JWST findings on the early Universe to be published in peer-reviewed reports1,2.

Researchers still need to confirm the distances of these galaxies by analysing the spectral properties of the light that they emit. But if initial estimates are correct, light from these objects has travelled such great distances that they appear as they did just 350 million to 450 million years after the Big Bang. Along with other JWST findings, these observations indicate that galaxies formed and evolved earlier in the Universe’s history than astronomers had been able to probe until now.

“It’s been a bit of a surprise that there are so many that formed so early,” says Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an astronomer at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. And that is challenging ideas of how galaxies formed early in the Universe, she says.

Like many of the far-away galaxies spotted by the telescope, the two contenders for the most distant appear small and bright, suggesting that they are compact, disk-shaped objects rather than being diffuse and straggly. Their tidiness and brightness hint that early galaxies had already developed well-organized structures out of many stars, rather than being distorted and faint, as earlier studies with the Hubble Space Telescope had indicated.

“This is amazing — we are seeing such luminous galaxies at early times,” Garth Illingworth, an author of one of the new reports who is an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said at a 17 November press briefing.

A race for the record

JWST, a US$10-billion observatory, studies the Universe in infrared wavelengths. One of its specialities is being able to detect light from distant galaxies that has been stretched to redder wavelengths by the expansion of the Universe. Astronomers use a measure known as redshift to describe exactly how far away galaxies are, with higher redshifts indicating more distant objects. One of the now-published distant-galaxy candidates has a redshift of 10.4 or 10.6, and the second candidate has a redshift of 12.2 or 12.4. The latter breaks the previous record: a galaxy with a redshift of around 11, spotted by Hubble3.

Two of the farthest galaxies seen to date are captured in these Webb Space Telescope pictures

Using deep-field images from JWST, researchers have pinpointed two distant galaxies with redshifts of about 10.5 and 12.5, making them some of the farthest away ever observed.Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA); Image Processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

The final, published redshifts are slightly lower than those reported in earlier preprints. Like many early JWST results, the findings went through extensive re-calculation after the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, released updated data calibrations for the telescope starting in late July.

Many other distant-galaxy candidates from JWST are still working their way through the peer-review process. Some could surpass the new record-holder at redshift 12.4. At least one has already been spectroscopically confirmed at redshift 9.76, in a preprint posted on 27 October to arXiv.org4. That preprint is listed as having been submitted to Nature.

Meanwhile, scientists are looking more broadly at what the telescope is revealing about galaxy formation. In a preprint posted on 10 November5, a team including Kartaltepe analysed 26 galaxies observed by the telescope with preliminary redshifts from 9 to 16. That work, too, finds that there are many more bright galaxies at these distances than theory had predicted. “While it is early days with JWST,” the authors write, “[initial] results provide an enthralling glimpse of the potential secrets the early universe has which our observations can unlock.”