I hadn’t intended to return so quickly to the issue of high-redshift galaxies, but SPT0418-47 jibes nicely with last week’s piece on 13.5 billion year old galaxies as studied by Penn State’s Joel Leja and colleagues. In that case, the issue was the apparent maturity of these objects at such an early age in the universe.

Today’s work, reported in a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, comes from a team led by Bo Peng at Cornell University. It too uses JWST data, in this case targeting a previously unseen galaxy the instrument picked out of the foreground light of galaxy SPT0418-47. In both cases, we’re seeing data that challenge conventional understanding of conditions in this remote era. This is evidence, but of what? Are we wrong about the basics of galaxy formation? Do we need to recalibrate the models we use to understand astrophysics at high-redshift?

SPT0418-47 is the galaxy JWST was being used to study, an intriguing subject in its own right. This is an infant galaxy still forming stars in the early universe, observable through the bending of its light by a foreground galaxy to form an Einstein ring. In other words, we’re seeing gravitational lensing at work here, magnifying the young galaxy’s light, out of which information can be extracted about the primordial object. And within that light, astronomers have now found a second galaxy which manifested itself in two places in the ring.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: Figure 1. Left: H? pseudo-narrowband image of the SPT0418 system, averaged over the channels including the H? emission in the original spectral cube. The strongly lensed ring and the two newly discovered sources (SE-1 and SE-2) are highlighted by a red annulus and gray and black ellipses, marked as “A,” “B,” and “C,” respectively. The lensing galaxy is shown as the central bright source. The 835 ?m continuum is plotted as the thin black contours, with the levels 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 × ? where ? = 56.7 ?Jy beam ?1. Right: the spectra of the three sources integrated over the regions highlighted in the left panel, using the same color scheme. The spectrum for the ring is scaled by a factor of 0.1 for clarity. The small black bar below the H? line marks the wavelength coverage of the pseudo-narrowband image. The potentially detected lines are marked by vertical dotted lines. Credit: The Astrophysical Journal Letters (2023). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/acb59c.

ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) data could do no more than hint at the background galaxy’s existence, but working with spectral data from JWST’s NIRSpec instrument, Peng discovered the new light source within the Einstein ring. The unexpected find was a galaxy being gravitationally lensed by the same foreground galaxy that had made SPT0418-47 available for study, though considerably fainter.

What stands out here is the analysis of the chemical composition of the new galaxy’s light, which shows strong emission lines from hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur atoms whose redshift showed the object to be about 10 percent of the age of the universe. The new galaxy, dubbed SPT0418-SE, appears to be close enough to SPT0418-47 that the two galaxies will interact with each other, making the duo a case study for galactic mergers. All of which is helpful, but here again we run into a fascinating problem. The newly discovered galaxy shows levels of metallicity comparable to our Sun.

It’s a conundrum. The Sun drew on earlier stellar generations to build up elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, and the Sun is roughly 4.6 billion years old. Amit Vishwas (Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences) is second author on the paper:

“We are seeing the leftovers of at least a couple of generations of stars having lived and died within the first billion years of the universe’s existence, which is not what we typically see. We speculate that the process of forming stars in these galaxies must have been very efficient and started very early in the universe, particularly to explain the measured abundance of nitrogen relative to oxygen, as this ratio is a reliable measure of how many generations of stars have lived and died.”

But let’s turn back a minute, for we’re looking at two early galaxies, and it’s intriguing that SPT0418-47, the first of these, shows its own anomalies. Data from ALMA allow astronomers to see that although 12 billion years old, this object has a more mature structure than would be expected. No spiral arms are apparent, but a rotating disk and bulge are found, with stars packed tightly around the galactic center. Simona Vegetti (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics), co-author on the 2020 paper on SPT0418-47 (citation below), had this to say three years ago:

“What we found was quite puzzling; despite forming stars at a high rate, and therefore being the site of highly energetic processes, SPT0418-47 is the most well-ordered galaxy disc ever observed in the early Universe. This result is quite unexpected and has important implications for how we think galaxies evolve.”

Image: Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner, have revealed an extremely distant and therefore very young galaxy that looks surprisingly like our Milky Way. The galaxy is so far away its light has taken more than 12 billion years to reach us: we see it as it was when the Universe was just 1.4 billion years old. It is also surprisingly unchaotic, contradicting theories that all galaxies in the early Universe were turbulent and unstable. This unexpected discovery challenges our understanding of how galaxies form, giving new insights into the past of our Universe. Credit: Rizzo et al./European Southern Observatory.

So the new galaxy, SPT0418-SE, adds to earlier evidence that the early universe was considerably less chaotic than we once thought. The new paper summarizes the issue with reference to the unexpectedly strong emission lines found in the data:

This spectroscopic study of a z > 4 galaxy opens up many questions, including the spatial arrangement and stellar/gas/metallicity distribution of the companion; the merging hypothesis of SPT0418-47; the dark-matter halo of the system; the overdensity of this potentially crowded field; reconciling the relatively high chemical abundances with the short formation time and the moderate stellar mass for the whole system; and interpreting the small [N ii] 122 and 205 ?m luminosities in the context of either a soft radiation field and/or a high N/O.

But again that note of high-redshift caution that I mentioned last week:

We attempt to reconcile the high metallicity in this system by invoking early onset of star formation with continuous high star-forming efficiency or by suggesting that optical strong line diagnostics need revision at high redshift. We suggest that SPT0418-47 resides in a massive dark-matter halo with yet-to-be-discovered neighbors.

Clearly scientists will be looking hard at how high-redshift targets are interpreted even as they continue to hypothesize about astrophysical mechanisms and star formation efficiency to explain seemingly mature objects at this early era. The game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, and we’re a long way from reaching firm conclusions. The data are going to start coming fast and furious as we keep mining JWST and using ALMA to examine the universe in this early stage, as witness the image below, which I found just this morning. It shows us another remarkable object.

Image: The radio telescope array ALMA has pin-pointed the exact cosmic age of a distant JWST-identified galaxy, GHZ2/GLASS-z12, at 367 million years after the Big Bang. ALMA’s deep spectroscopic observations revealed a spectral emission line associated with ionized Oxygen near the galaxy, which has been shifted in its observed frequency due to the expansion of the Universe since the line was emitted. This observation confirms that the JWST is able to look out to record distances, and heralds a leap in our ability to understand the formation of the earliest galaxies in the Universe. Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / T. Treu, UCLA / NAOJ / T. Bakx, Nagoya U.

The paper is Bo Peng et al., “Discovery of a Dusty, Chemically Mature Companion to a z ? 4 Starburst Galaxy in JWST ERS Data,” The Astrophysical Journal Letters 944 No. 2 L36 (17 February 2023). Full text. The paper on SPT0418-47 is Rizzo et al., “A dynamically cold disk galaxy in the early Universe,” Nature 584 (12 August 2020), pp. 201–204. Abstract. The GHZ2/GLASS-z12 paper is Bakx et al., “Deep ALMA redshift search of a z 12 GLASS-JWST galaxy candidate,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Volume 519, Issue (4 March 2023), pp. 5076–5085 (abstract).