A Wrinkle in Time Magnifies JWST, Unlocking New Insights Into the Evolution of Our Universe

An image of galaxy cluster WHL0137-08 collected by JSWT. This is a magnified image of a galaxy (sunrise arc) formed within the first billion years of our universe. The imaged star is the most distant star ever detected. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/AURA.

Infrared telescopes measure wavelengths longer than those of visible light, enabling us to peer through molecular clouds of dust and watch the birth of stars and planetary systems. Stars are the fundamental building blocks of our galaxy. Their properties and evolution are studied through astronomical observations and presolar grains in primitive astromaterials. The compositions, environmental conditions, age, and distribution of stars trace the evolution of their host galaxies and important processes such as nucleosynthesis. Therefore, the most advanced infrared telescope ever built, JWST, could provide insight into stellar evolution and the formation of our galaxies.

Recently, nature provided a wrinkle in time and space that magnified JWST’s reach, revealing the farthest star ever detected. The resolution was sufficient for determining that it is a B-type star that burns with twice the heat of our Sun (a main-sequence, hydrogen-burning star). This star, called Earendel, is three billion years older than the farthest star ever detected by Hubble. The wrinkle in time was created by galaxy cluster WHL0137-08, which warped the fabric of space and time due to its size, enabling JSWT to bend and magnify light from surrounding galaxies further into the universe than its technology was first thought to be capable of. Details from JWST were sufficient to see adjacent cooler and redder companion stars, stellar nurseries, and established clusters less than 10 million years old. Many of these were detected at wavelengths longer than Hubble’s instruments could have detected. This phenomenon recently enabled the discovery of another star called Quyllur, a red giant one billion years older than the star discovered by Hubble. These discoveries reveal a realm of the universe previously thought to be inaccessible, providing a stepping stone to unlocking our capability of studying the first generation of stars. These stars are the building blocks of galactic chemical evolution, composed of the raw components created during the initial birth of our universe, the “Big Bang.” READ MORE