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Canadian researchers spot oldest star clusters through James Webb telescope


In a galaxy nine billion light years away shines a form of star clusters that these Canadian researchers hope will shed new details on the universe’s earliest discoveries.


A team of researchers with the Canadian Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph Unbiased Cluster Survey (CANUCS) team found evidence of the oldest distant globular clusters. These clusters were spotted in the “Sparkler Galaxy,” notable captured by the James Webb Space Telescope’s First Deep Field image in July.


Lamiya Mowla and Kartheik Iyer, co-lead authors and fellows at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, published their findings on Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


Their team observed the galaxy as it was nine billion years ago, when the universe was just four-and-a-half billion years old. Out of the 12 globular clusters analyzed, five of them are estimated to be about four billion years old themselves.


“So that means that these stars were formed very early on in the universe, right after the big bang, where the first stars were getting born; that’s the era when the star clusters were born,” Mowla said to CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Thursday.


The researchers were able to observe the objects through the use of the James Webb telescope’s Near-Infrared (NIR) camera, along with archival data from the Hubble Space telescope. However, it was the Canadian-made Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument on Webb telescope that was able to determine how old these clusters are.


Iyer says while the Webb telescope was intended to find early data of the universe, their team was still surprised to find these clusters, specifically ones that are billions of years old.


“Objects like the Sparkler were an ‘unknown unknown’ – we didn’t know that we didn’t know about them – so finding it was really exciting,” Iyer said to CTVNews.ca on Thursday.


As they continue with their research, both say they are looking forward to discovering what else they can learn about these globular clusters and perhaps similar “unknown unknown” objects they didn’t know about. Iyer says through further investigation with the NIR they are hoping to determine how big these clusters are, how they are formed and even more details on the Sparkler Galaxy itself.


Iyer says their research is a testament to the incredible data that has been found since the James Webb telescope’s launch less than a year ago that he said its predecessor, the Hubble Space telescope, took years to capture.


“It’s showing us the higher edge of the universe that up until now was all of these faint fuzzy blobs, which actually have a lot more structure to it than we expected,” he said. “We’re seeing these really pretty spirals, these merging galaxies, all of these like weird objects with the Webb data that Hubble didn’t have enough resolution to see, so it’s really cool.” 


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