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Teenage galaxies are extremely hot, finds James Webb Space Telescope

In yet another interesting outcome from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers at Northwestern University in the US have been able to study "teenage galaxies" in greater detail by studying their chemistry and found them to be extremely hot, a press release said.

In the nearly two years that the JWST has been up in space, the $10 billion telescope has repeatedly shown why the two-decade wait for its design and completion has been completely worth it. From the discovery of a supermassive black hole to the earliest complex organic molecules, the JWST has been constantly to what we know about our universe and is only getting started.

  • James Webb Space Telescope detects a 'baby galaxy' 
  • James Webb snaps a stunning question mark in space 
  • James Webb Space Telescope captures the second-most distant galaxy ever 

Scientists are always interested in how it began, but some are also keen on how we got here. To understand this better, a research team led by Allison Strom from Northwestern University has been studying teenage galaxies that formed two to three billion years after the Big Bang and have turned to JWST for all the information it can offer.

What is the CECILIA survey?

Strom's team is using the JWST to study the chemistry of these distant galaxies through a program called Chemical Evolution Constrained using Ionized Lines in Interstellar Aurorae(CECILIA). The name isn't just a fancy acronym but a homage to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.

The survey targets teenage galaxies going through a messy time of growth and change to determine the impact of these events on them, much like in humans. To do so, the JWST is capturing light across different wavelengths from these distant galaxies, which gives the researchers an idea about its chemical makeup.

For instance, astrophysicists are not sure why some galaxies appear red during the formation of stars. The spectrum - readings across different wavelengths can provide clues on the active elements inside the galaxies and help determine what will happen next.

As part of the CECILIA Survey, the JWST continuously observed 33 such distant and teenage galaxies for 30 hours and then combined spectra from 23 to reveal a composite picture. "This washes out the details of individual galaxies but gives us a better sense of an average galaxy. It also allows us to see fainter features," Strom added in the press release.

What do we know about teenage galaxies?

The early analysis of this data has shown that teenage galaxies have eight distinct elements: Hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, argon, and, surprisingly, a heavier metal - nickel. The elements heavier than hydrogen and helium form inside stars, providing information about the galaxy's evolution.

Artist's illustration of galaxies with stars


Strom's team found that these teenage galaxies were extremely hot, with certain pockets reaching temperatures over 24,062 degrees Fahrenheit (13,350 degrees Celsius). In comparison, the hottest pockets in other galaxies reach 17,492 degrees Fahrenheit (9,700 degrees Celsius).

Strom was also surprised to see the presence of nickel, a metal heavier than iron that has proven difficult to observe. "There has to be enough of an element present in a galaxy and the right conditions to observe it. No one ever talks about observing nickel. Elements have to be glowing in gas for us to see them. So, for us to see nickel, there may be something unique about the stars within the galaxies," Strom added.

The research findings about the CECILIA Survey were published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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