The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted the earliest known galaxy to abruptly stop forming stars.
The galaxy, called GS-9209, quenched its star formation more than 12.5 billion years ago, researchers report January 26 at arXiv.org. That’s only a little more than a billion years after the Big Bang. Its existence reveals new details about how galaxies live and die across cosmic time.
“It’s a remarkable discovery,” says astronomer Mauro Giavalisco of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who was not involved in the new study. “We really want to know when the conditions are ripe to make quenching a widespread phenomenon in the universe.” This study shows that at least some galaxies quenched when the universe was young.
GS-9209 was first noticed in the early 2000s. In the last few years, observations with ground-based telescopes identified it as a possible quenched galaxy, based on the wavelengths of light it emits. But Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the infrared wavelengths that could confirm the galaxy’s distance and that its star-forming days were behind it, so it was impossible to know for sure.
So astrophysicist Adam Carnall and colleagues turned to the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. The observatory is very sensitive to infrared light, and it’s above the blockade of Earth’s atmosphere. “This is why JWST exists,” says Carnall, of the University of Edinburgh. JWST also has much greater sensitivity than earlier telescopes, letting it see fainter, more distant galaxies. While the largest telescopes on the ground could maybe see GS-9209 in detail after a month of observing, “JWST can pick this stuff up in a few hours.” [Continue reading…]