The James Webb Space Telescope has captured images of a field of space that can tell us more about the formation of the universe.
This field is the dwarf galaxy NGC 246, located 200,000 light-years from Earth in the Small Magellanic Cloud.
It is filled with clouds of dust and hydrogen, precursors to the formation of stars and planets.
“We’re seeing the building blocks not just of stars, but potentially planets as well,” says European Space Agency researcher Guido De Marchi.
Great images from the James Webb Space Telescope
These conditions are comparable to the Cosmic Noon conditions, when the universe is between two and three billion years old. It is currently estimated to be 13.7 billion years old.
A view of a younger universe
Cosmic Noon was a powerful period for star formation. “In a galaxy during Cosmic Noon, there wouldn’t be an NGC 346 like the Small Magellanic Cloud does; It will have thousands of star-forming regions like this one, says lead researcher Universities Space Research Association astronomer Margaret Meixner.
“But even though NGC 346 is currently the only large rapidly forming star-forming cluster in its galaxy, it offers us a wonderful opportunity to investigate conditions occurring at Cosmic Noon.”
“Since the Small Magellanic Cloud has a galaxy-like environment during Cosmic Noon, it’s possible that rocky planets formed earlier in the universe than we thought,” explains De Marchi.
The colored swirls seen in the telescope’s images are clouds of gas. The pink springs are energized hydrogen that can be up to 10,000°C hot, according to NASA. The orange shapes are much denser molecular hydrogen, as cold as -200 °C.
These images were released a day after the James Webb Space Telescope discovered an Earth-sized planet just 41 light-years away.
The first images taken using the telescope were released in July 2022, about six months after reaching its working position in the sun’s orbit, about a million miles from Earth. It can see faint infrared light from distant galaxies that have traveled for more than 13 billion years, at a time when the universe was in its infancy.