Scientists have been using NASA’s space telescope James Webb to learn about galaxies from long ago. Way back then, when the universe was just getting started, most galaxies didn’t look like the spiral shapes we see today.

The researchers found that a huge number of early galaxies were thin and flat, like surfboards lying on their sides. They called these “surfboard galaxies”.

Some others looked more like skinny tubes or noodles, so they called them “pool noodle galaxies”. Only a tiny amount were round, like volleyball shapes.

Most surprising was that surfboard and pool noodle galaxies made up between half to four-fifths of all the galaxies from that time. But nowadays, we don’t see many flat or skinny galaxies near us in space.

To figure this out, the scientists looked really closely at tons of pictures taken by Webb of galaxies from over 600 million to 6 billion years after the Big Bang. That’s when the earliest galaxies formed.

The team thought about what our own Milky Way galaxy might have looked like back then too. They think it was probably a surfboard galaxy before, because now astronomers know the Milky Way was less massive in the ancient past. As galaxies get older and more stars form, they tend to thicken up from flat shapes into the spirals we see today.

Although the early galaxies were smaller than modern ones like our Milky Way, finding that they came in different styles was a neat surprise. Learning about the earliest galaxies can tell us how they grew over time into the large spirals and ellipses we see now. The team hopes looking at even more galaxies with Webb will help them understand better how shape and size changed as the universe aged.

While Hubble gave scientists their first views of some very old galaxies long ago, Webb is helping fill in more details. Its infrared pictures reveal galaxy shapes with higher quality than ever before.

So by combining what Hubble and Webb can see throughout space and time, astronomers are painting a clearer picture of how the first celestial objects took form at the dawn of everything.


NASA | Columbia University

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