Ep. 698: Insights into the Universe, featuring JWST Results

Recorded live during the CosmoQuestX 2023 Hangout-a-Thon on November 5.

How the time flies. It’s been over a year since JWST went operational, with other missions joining the fun. What new insights have we gained about the Universe thanks to these powerful new tools?


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:00:59]  Astronomy cast. Episode 698 New Insights into the universe. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, a weekly facts based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, Bill, how you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:02:11] I am doing well enough. We are currently in our. Oh, dear. We are currently in our 26 of our 32 hour fundraiser for Cosmic Quest. An astronomy cast partner. Patreon is down. It’s down for astronomy cast is down for Cosmic Quest. Our donations are down. The economy isn’t good. A lot of people are worried about war, but the humans that work for us still have bills to pay. And everyone working for Astronomy Cast is okay enough. So we’re doing good. We had a question, but over on Cosmic Quest we’re struggling a bit more and we had this horrible realization that across everything we do, it’s like 1% of the people donate. And and we want to give everything away for free. But if everyone who downloaded an episode last week donated $4 once, we’d be good for the entire year. Yeah. Good. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:21] Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:22] And so unfortunately, with that, only about 1% donate. We’re here begging. Yes. Hi. Hi. If you would like to donate, we’ll have all of the links in the discussion over on YouTube. And. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:43] But just in general, go to Cosmo Quest x.org/request.org. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:48] Or. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:49] Cosmo quest.org/donate donate. And you can kick a couple of bucks our way. And of course, Cosmo Quest provides all kinds of educational services, runs community, and helps with developing citizen science projects. And so all of these are valuable and important. And we pay people salaries to do this work. And so if you want to help us out, please go to Cosmo quest.org/donate. How the time flies. It’s been over a year since his went operational with other missions. Joining the fun. What new insights have we gained about the universe thanks to these powerful new tools? Doesn’t doesn’t the time really feel like it’s flying? I mean, July 2022 was when we got the first light images from GBC and here we are now. We did an episode all about one full year of web observations. We are now in November, so another three four months on top of of that. And science marches on. And I mean, really, we’ve been getting like in the beginning, everyone’s kind of excited and, and people were getting ahead of the arrow over the end of their skis. People were making instant claims that maybe took a little need a little more research to look into. And so I think this is a great time for us to think more deeply about what we’ve learned about the universe now that we are this far into the era. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:26] And and what I love is, I think the biggest thing that I’ve walked away from all the, jet papers with is a even stronger feeling that the universe is an improv artist that really likes to say yes. And. It seems like every time we’ve ever had a. Well, it’s this or it’s this, the answer keeps being both. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:55] Both? 

Pamela Gay [00:05:56] Yeah. And my favorite example of this was one of the first papers to threaten to revolutionize cosmology. Was was one of the ones that looked at all his, images of galaxy clusters in deep fields and basically said, there’s bigger stuff out there than there should be. There’s brighter stuff out there than there should be there for. The universe must be forming bigger, brighter things sooner, faster than we expected. And the follow up observations have been like, well, some of them aren’t where we thought they were. Some of them are doing things different than what our models assume, so they’re actually fine. And yeah, some of these really don’t make sense. And I’m loving it, right? 

Fraser Cain [00:06:44] I mean, for sure, like within days of G2 was going live, I was looking through the various papers coming out of both journals, as well as all the stuff that’s on archive, which is always sort of a bit of a dangerous game, you know, because it’s all preprint. And, and you were seeing people see galaxies that were like 200 million years after the Big Bang, 230 million years, 170 million years after the Big Bang. And like, that’s astonishing. That is so much earlier than Webb. Those are so much earlier than Hubble. And and then and so like that was exciting. And it was still just like, you know, we think we saw a galaxy that’s that was the beginning and the end of the paper at that age. But then you got that round of, of paper saying what we’re seeing, these galaxies are too big, too soon, that every model of our understanding of the cosmology of the universe, none of them predicted this. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:44] And what wasn’t mentioned in a lot of the coverage of that discovery was the fact that they base the size of the galaxies on how luminous they appeared at their distance, and an assumption of the size distribution of the stars. So like. When you look at a galaxy in our modern universe, there’s going to be a whole lot of tiny stars, a whole lot of medium sized stars, but not quite as many. And as you get bigger and bigger along that initial mass function, you get fewer and fewer stars. And so when we see a system that’s a specific luminosity, it gives off a certain amount of light. And we measure how bright it appears. And that allows us to figure out how big it actually is. Based on this assumption of the distribution of masses of stars. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:47] Yeah. And so as more work was done, as more science was done, as the spectroscopy came in, as people were able to analyze these galaxies in more detail, all of these extreme observations about the galaxies started to go away. Yeah. And where we are now. And like, I don’t think people know this, that where we are now is that everything is fine, everything is exciting, but everything is fine. 

Pamela Gay [00:09:16] And my favorite part of this was the mix of how we got there. And I’m just going to keep detailing this out. So it turned out that a couple of the systems being looked at, they had a different distribution of colors than initially assumed. And since we were doing broadband photometry for the images, you get colors but not spectral lines. And you can use that to estimate the distance to an object. But if you don’t know correctly, with the mix of stars, you’re going to misplace your galaxy. And so a few of the galaxies were just misplaced. And once we got spectra that allowed us to see specific atomic lines, measured the specific distances, those objects got a whole lot closer and a whole lot less suspicious. 

Fraser Cain [00:10:09] Right. Yeah. And that, like certain kinds of surveys of this early universe, told you that, like, were preferential towards making some galaxies look bigger, but not revealing some of the other ones that would have been in the same field of view. And so you were just seeing some of the bigger ones and that was starting to skew the results. And then the other thing is, you know, a lot of really interesting theories have also been put out. Like for example, well, early on in the universe, star formation probably went in pulses. And so you’re seeing something that isn’t just the continuous starlight from a giant galaxy, you’re seeing one of these galaxies. It’s going into this, this flare up of of star formation. And the other thing that’s been really interesting as well is the interactions between the galaxies. So there’s a lot of papers coming out talking about quenching, about how galaxies with active galactic nuclei are blasting out material that is then shutting down star formation in nearby galaxies. And so it’s all of these nuanced discoveries that are adding a lot of really interesting texture to the things that astronomers already knew about, about the early universe. That’s the real. That’s the real part that I think you should be focusing on. If you’re you’re listening to this, you know, that that that nuance is now being worked out. And that’s where the real progress is getting made. You’re not overturning the big Bang. You are discovering how galaxies, when they were merged together, were interacting with each other to cause mayhem, which is really interesting. 

Pamela Gay [00:11:49] And a nuance almost feels like it’s too cautious of a word. It’s it’s one of these things where we. Ran computer models that came up with a certain set of results allowed for a certain set of possibilities, and we as human beings failed to be creative enough to include in all the details that needed included in. And because of that, we we simply failed to imagine things that now we look at what the universe is actually doing and it’s like, oh yeah, that’s obvious. Who should have thought of that? And, and so our, our own failure to include all the needed complexity meant that we didn’t understand what we saw the first time. But on the second and third glance, it was like, oh yeah, okay, this is cool. We’re fine. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:44] I mean, I’ll give you one really interesting kind of practical example is, which is these outflows that that galaxies have these outflows coming from them, as I said, that quench their their nearby neighbors and shut down star formation. And so you can have some galaxy that is putting out all of this radiation and all these particles and then and then their neighbors are not being able to go to the same amount of star formation. And astronomers weren’t sure what was the source of these outflows, like one possibility that it could be supernovae, another possibility that it could be, mergers, you know, star formation. And then another possibility is that it could be material that’s coming out of active galactic nuclei. And then they were able to now. With, you know, they’re fairly certain this is coming from the the black holes from the active galactic nuclei, not the super not the star formation. And that requires resolution. That requires being able to do really good spectroscopy on your galaxies to get a sense of, of what the source is. And so there are all of these mysteries, you know, if you sat down cosmologists and just said, like, give me your top 20 mysteries, the beginning of the universe, they’ll have a bunch of them and they’ll sell that, you know, what is the source of galactic outflows? And Webb is so precise that it is now providing evidence to each one of these mysteries to lead this conversation further. And I think that’s man, that is just something that’s just not making the headlines, which is too bad. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:17] And I think we have to give credit where credit is due. Accretion disks are the real baddies of the universe. Yeah, the supermassive black holes are just sitting there going, I’m spinning in a big. And this in flowing material is forming a spinning disk that is hot. It has nuclear reactions going on. It’s generating extraordinarily powerful magnetic fields that are driving these powerful jets. And the light from these accretion disks moving outwards in some cases can destroy star formation within the galaxy. The accretion disk lives in, and the jets popping out has the potential to hit other galaxies and end star formation. Nam, don’t be afraid of the black holes. Be afraid of those. Under acknowledged accretion disks. Traveling the universe with them. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:18] Yeah, yeah. And so again, I’m kind of having trouble putting this to words, but just be patient. Yeah. And and enjoy the ride as these mysteries get solved one after the other. Now we’re going to talk about this some more in a second. But it’s time for a break. 

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Fraser Cain [00:17:10] And we’re back. So let’s get a little closer to home now. And and I would say one of the biggest mysteries that is now being solved right in front of our eyes is rogue planets. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:23] Yes. 

Fraser Cain [00:17:23] And and Webb gave us one of the most exciting announcements based on this. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:31] The Orion Nebula. Yeah, is full of star formation. We know this. We love it because of this. It is extremely dense in star formation, and it is apparently a world knock world situation gravitationally because there are thousands of planets just hanging out, not directly affiliated with any one star. This this isn’t enough to solve dark matter. Don’t, at any rate. But if it is enough to really allow us to realize there is a vast quantity of small, cold, round stars moving through our galaxy, that the only way we can possibly see it outside of star forming regions like Orion or Carina. We need to look at Carina more, please. Is. Unfortunately through gravitational lensing events, and so far that I know of, we haven’t found any rogue planets that way. So this is this is a population that was unknown. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:46] We know of 100. We know of about 100 rogue planets through gravitational microlensing. 

Pamela Gay [00:18:51] I stand corrected because he reads more research papers than I do some weeks. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:57] Yeah, yeah. And so that, you know, this new snapshot from of the Orion Nebula, they found hundreds, like more than 500 rogue planets, Jupiter sized, Saturn sized, bigger. And many of these, about 9% are in binary star. Relationships and you’ve got two. Rogue Jupiters orbiting one another. And they had hints that this was the case from Spitzer and Herschel, which are, you know, far infrared instruments. But they didn’t have this level of detail. And so now they will to this. And these are just the big ones. Like for every rogue Saturn there’s going to be ten rogue Earths. And so now like in the past we would think, oh, you know, maybe there’s a couple of rogue planets per system. And now there are probably more rogue planets than stars. More, maybe more rogue planets than planets. Crazy. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:05] Wild. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:06] Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:07] So. So we’ve really found hundreds using just gravitational lensing. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:12] We found out we’ve got 100 through gravitational microlensing. Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:16] Wow. Okay. I clearly am missing a corner of literature. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:20] Yeah. There’s 100 known rogue planets before this new discovery of 540, like, announced in one paper. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:31] And and that’s the other side of the story, is it’s getting to the point that unless your entire job is keeping track of this. Thank you. Fraser. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:42] Yeah, yeah, it’s all I do. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:44] The stories on the rogue planets in Orion didn’t mention the rogue planets that were micro lensed in general. And so it’s getting hard to keep track of all the different things we’re learning in all the different ways. And one of the most powerful tools we have for advancing astronomy is getting people who work in different disciplines in the same room, comparing what they learned in different ways, and seeing how that information fits together. And it’s getting harder and harder to do that every day. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:17] Yeah. It’s funny because I almost sometimes play that role and like when I’m interviewing somebody, I’m like, oh, like, what about this paper over there? And like, I hadn’t heard about that. And I send them in the paper, you know, because they weren’t aware this other team had made this discovery over on that side. It’s like it is really hard. I think this is one of the things that if we had AI telling us things that might be also useful to what we’re working on right now, that would be very helpful. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:41] And not hallucinating. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:43] Yeah. Yeah. So we talked about rogue planets. We’ve talked about new galaxies, digital universe. Let’s talk a bit about exoplanets. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:52] So we’re finally going to start seeing the potential from Tess that had been counted on. And she just he was able to confirm its first exoplanet. So so for those of you who don’t remember the story, the original plan for Tess was it would launch about the same time as J. UST the two of them would be working in coordinated planning the entire time, such that when Tess finds a world in the process of transiting, there’d be the capacity to steer over and go yes or no by looking at the atmosphere. And this is just such a fabulous story. And then Tess got to orbit and it’s like, I’m here by myself, right? And Tess tested amazing work. Ground based astronomers have been doing crazy, amazing stuff, figuring out how to get as close as they could to what it was planned for for us to be doing. But finally we’re there. We’re we’re able to do this. And. Yeah. I’m just sort of like task. Do the thing. Yeah. And and Jagdwurst, with its ability to look at atmospheres, has been confirming all sorts of molecules, atoms, things we weren’t expecting around planets. Kelt nine V is my favorite. It seems to have every weird hot atom that you can only see under extremely high temperatures. And I’m loving it. What’s your. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:33] Favorite? Well, I mean, just like all of it is my favorite because prior to G. He there was a couple of exoplanet observations done with Spitzer. Poorly like, it could just barely analyze the atmosphere of a planet that was transiting in front of its star. And so we knew of just a couple of examples like, yes, it has an atmosphere, and we think there’s like some chemicals in that atmosphere no more, you know, no more data. But with gravity, it’s finding really solid lines of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen, water, water, sulfur dioxide, all of these chemicals, and then weird ones like quartz, like glass clouds and things like that. And so you’re just getting, like, every planet that they turn on and, and gathering of data, they map its atmosphere, which like, like again, we just we get so used to this, right, that by the way, there is a telescope that that is currently mapping the atmosphere of planets orbiting other stars so that we know what’s in them. Now, obviously, we know we haven’t found stuff that makes us think there’s life there. The Trappist one systems are all coming up airless, but still it’s phenomenal that this happens. And so each one, you know, you see a new a new paper comes out and you’re like, oh, this is so cool. And imagine there will be this day in the future where we will have analyzed thousands, tens of thousands that we will know, sort of at a statistical level, what chemicals are in the atmospheres of planets. And this is this is how beginning, you know, right now there is maybe ten that have been done so far, but it’s just going to snowball into the future. And and so each one is just so great. 

Pamela Gay [00:25:27] And the other side of this is like from alma, we’ve gotten amazing details on planetary disks in the process of forming worlds around young guest stars. J t is taking us a step earlier in some cases, and allowing us to see that first breath, that class zero protostars in disks with lights and seeing the structure of the interstellar medium around them. And so we’re starting to improve the different kinds of snapshots we have where we can see the story of. And here’s where they turn on, and here’s where the worlds form and here’s where if you have enough stars forming together, they fling worlds everywhere. Space is messy and you’re getting more glimpses of it. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:26] Yeah. So you’ve got this situation where you go from nothing, a giant cloud of gas, and then on the other side, you’ve got a star with all of its planets. It’s blowing everything away. And then there is that moment. And people always ask me that question like, you know, like, how long does it take for a star to ignite? And, you know, what do you mean by ignite? Is sort of the question I always come back with because it takes some time. But but literally, you were seeing that 100,000 years where you go from cold gas cloud to hot, not in the middle with infrared. That’s what data is T is perfect for. And so you’re seeing these little slices of star formation at different points at the, at the specific scale. Like we see these like ha big hero objects. Yeah. But then at the grander scales, as you said, the Carina Nebula, the Tarantula Nebula, the Orion Nebula, the Eagle Nebula, like the most dramatic nebula that we know of, the ones that are on all of our phones, all of our computer backgrounds, we are seeing, we’re just looking with, like, X-ray vision right into these, in these nebulae and seeing all of the stars that are forming that would have just been opaque in a visible light telescope. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:41] And that’s wonderful, because with s t all the things that we’re used to seeing with our backyard telescopes. That is blocked. The light of what’s beyond. We can now start to at least see into with some of these giant molecular clouds and the galactic center brick and all of these other structures that we just didn’t know that and we knew they were there. We knew they were full of molecules. We knew they were cold, and now we can see at least a little ways into them and start to understand all the steps, using all the wavelengths of light, because we have a new wavelength to explore. 

Fraser Cain [00:28:28] Yeah. There was a paper that came out where astronomers had been put together all of their plans for doing an infrared investigation around the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, home to 150 hours to study the motions of all of the stars going around the black hole, the gas clouds that around there, the weird regions of star formation that are way too close to the center of the Milky Way. Yeah. And so for a year or two, there will be even more of these. And when you think about the fact that we’ll probably have this telescope for 20 years, yeah, it’s going to be just year after year after year of these kinds of discoveries and announcements. It’s, it’s a good time. This I you remember I said before was the golden age of astronomy. No, no, no, this we are now in the golden. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:13] Age of astronomy. No, we still need to get Vera Rubin doing her survey. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:18] And Euclid and Nancy Grace. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:20] Was right, as those three. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:23] Instruments working together are going to be just phenomenal. And, you know, we’re going to see the first color pictures from Euclid. By the time you listen to this, they will have been released and we’re waiting for that. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:35] It’s an impatient time. And some of the most impatient people out there right now are the folks that just in the past couple of weeks, have submitted new cycle proposals to Jay Austere, saying, this is what we want to see next. Yeah, that was second three right? Yes. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:54] They had to submit cycle three. Amazing. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:57] And and so now we have the potential to start seeing follow up observations on the initial images. We get to start seeing the more telescopes come online, the more follow up to the more concepts that we have the potential to get to follow up. So it was a very awkward sentence for very awesome science. 

Fraser Cain [00:30:17] More follow up, more better. Pamela, thank you. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:22] Thank you, and thank you so much to all of our patrons out there who get ad free versions of every episode, and make it possible for us to pay our staff who keep us rational and sane. So this week I would like to thank Jordan Young, Steve, invite Jeanette Wenk, bora anthro level Saji Kemmler, Andrew plasterer ed Boogieing that Brian Cagle, David. Trog, Gerhard. Schweitzer, David. Buzz parsec. Zero. Chell, Laura Olson, Robert Fuller’s my Joe Holstein, Richard. Drum, Liz. Howard, Adam. A nice brown. Gordon. Doers. Who’s in the room with me? Alexis. Wanderer and 101 Felix. Good. Kim bear and Astro sets. William Andre gold, Roland Vollmer. Madame, all of you, thank you for supporting us at the. We’re sorry. Pamela will likely mispronounce your name level. They don’t teach phonics so well in this country. 

Fraser Cain [00:31:26] Is that in Astronomy Cast, like in our Patreon tiers? That should be one of them for sure. 

Pamela Gay [00:31:31] It’s eight. Yeah, I think we need to rename that tier. 

Fraser Cain [00:31:34] I like it. All right. Thanks everyone and we’ll see you next week for bye. 

Pamela Gay [00:31:44] Astronomy cast is a joint product of the Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it. But please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

Show Notes

JWST Might Have Spotted the First Dark Matter Stars (Stephaie Pappas, Scientific American)

Webb Reveals Intricate Details in the Remains of a Dying Star (Webb Space Telescope)

Pairs of rogue planets found wandering in the Orion Nebula (Physics World)

James Webb Telescope to Unravel Mysteries of Crystal Ball Nebula (James Webb Discovery)

Supermassive Dark Star candidates seen by JWST (Cosmin Ilie, Jillian Paulin, and Katherine Freese, 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol 120, No 30)

Nebulae News (Science Daily)