The earliest stars ever seen may have been spotted by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a study carried out by astronomers at the University of Toronto has found.

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Researchers from the university’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics in the University of Toronto spotted the distant cluster of stars after analysing data from the space telescope’s first deep field image.

Dubbed ‘The Sparkler Galaxy’, thanks to the series of small yellow dots that surround it, the cosmic object lies around nine billion light-years away from Earth.

The team believes that the sparkles that give the galaxy its name are old globular clusters - ancient collections of stars that formed during a galaxy’s infancy that contain clues about the earliest phases of its formation and growth.

Previously, using the Hubble Space Telescope - the James Webb Telescope's predecessor, astronomers were not able to determine what the sparkles surrounding the galaxy were.

The increased resolution and sensitivity of the JWST has now allowed them to analyse them in detail, including determining their age, for the first time.

The data analysed was captured by the JWST's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which is able to detect incredibly faint objects using wavelengths of light that are invisible to the human eye.

“Looking at the first images from JWST and discovering old globular clusters around distant galaxies was an incredible moment – one that wasn’t possible with previous Hubble Space Telescope imaging,” said study co-author Dr Kartheik G. Iyer, of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“Since we could observe the sparkles across a range of wavelengths, we could model them and better understand their physical properties – like how old they are and how many stars they contain. We hope the knowledge that globular clusters can be observed at from such great distances with JWST will spur further science and searches for similar objects.”

Read more about the James Webb Space Telescope:

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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