Star clusters formed 460 million years after the Big Bang discovered by James Webb Telescope

Astronomers have discovered five young star clusters, possibly among the oldest ever discovered, with histories dating back to the earliest times of the universe. According to an international team led by Stockholm University and including collaborators from select European countries, the US and Japan, these gravitationally bound giant clusters could provide important clues about the reionisation era of the universe.

“This is the first discovery of star clusters in a newborn galaxy, less than 500 million years after the Big Bang,” said a statement released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Monday.

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The cosmic Gems Arc was discovered in NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope images obtained by the RELIC (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey) program of the lensing galaxy cluster SPT-CL J0615-5746, NASA said in a release.

“These galaxies are thought to be the main sources of the intense radiation that re-ionized the early universe,” said lead author Angela Adamo of Stockholm University and the Oskar Klein Centre in Sweden. “What's special about Cosmic Gems' arc is that, thanks to gravitational lensing, we can actually resolve the galaxy down to the parsec scale!”

Astronomers can now see where stars form and how they are distributed, just as the Hubble Space Telescope is used to study local galaxies. Webb's view provides a unique opportunity to study star formation and the inner workings of newborn galaxies at such an unprecedented distance.

“Webb's incredible sensitivity and angular resolution at near-infrared wavelengths, combined with gravitational lensing provided by the massive foreground galaxy cluster, made this discovery possible,” said Larry Bradley of the Space Telescope Science Institute and PI of the Webb observation program that collected the data. “No other telescope could have made this discovery.”

“When we first opened the images of Webb we were amazed and astonished,” Adamo said. “We saw a tiny series of bright dots, mirrored from side to side – these are the cosmic jewel star clusters! Without Webb, we would have had no idea we were looking at star clusters in such a small galaxy!”

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains many gravitationally bound ancient globular star clusters that have survived for billions of years. These clusters are the remnants of intense star formation in the early universe, but their exact origins and formation times are not well understood.

The detection of massive young star clusters in this arc is likely to launch a series of studies on the early stages of the star formation process and its subsequent evolution in globular clusters. This discovery is important, as it will help scientists better understand how and where baby galaxies were born.

“These galaxies are thought to be the main sources of the intense radiation that re-ionized the early universe,” said Angela Adamo of Stockholm University and lead author of the paper published in the journal Nature.

This discovery could also serve as direct evidence for the formation of proto-globular clusters in faint galaxies during the reionization phase of the universe, strengthening the understanding that galaxies played an important role in the reionization of the universe.

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