The James Webb Space Telescope may have found some of the very 1st stars

A very starry and galactic section of deep space. A box on the top-right shows an enlarged view of one of the galaxies.
GN-z11 is found in the constellation of Ursa Major, in a region of sky being studied by the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS) project. (Image credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz)/Ben Johnson (CfA)/Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge)/Marcia Rieke (University of Arizona)/Daniel Eisenstein (CfA).)

Evidence for the first generation of stars to exist in the universe has come to light, thanks to  observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The proof is located in one of the most distant galaxies known.

The galaxy, designated GN-z11, was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2015 and, prior to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, it was considered the most faraway galaxy known. With a redshift of 10.6, it makes more sense to talk about how long ago it existed, rather than how far away it is. That's because we see GN-z11 as it was just 430 million years after the Big Bang due to the time it took for its light to travel to our corner of the cosmos. For comparison, the universe today is 13.8 billion years old.

Related: The James Webb Space Telescope's targets over the next year include black holes, exomoons, dark energy — and more

As such, GN-z11 was a prime target for the JWST to study. Now, two new papers describe profound discoveries about GN-z11 that reveal vital details about how galaxies that existed in the early universe were able to grow.

GN-z11 is the most luminous galaxy known at this particular redshift, and indeed this has become a common theme for high redshift galaxies now almost regularly being found in the early universe by the JWST. Many of them appear much brighter than what our models of galaxy formation predict they should be. Those predictions are based on the standard model of cosmology.

Now, the JWST's new observations seem to have shed light on what is going on. 

An astronomy team, led by Roberto Maiolino of the University of Cambridge, has probed GN-z11 with the JWST's two near-infrared instruments, the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec). The researchers discovered evidence for the first generation of stars, called Population III stars, as well as for a supermassive black hole gobbling up huge amounts of matter and growing at a vastly accelerated rate.

Scientists can calculate the age of a star based on its abundance of heavy elements, which would have been formed by previous generations of stars that lived and died, spewing those heavy elements into space where they ultimately get recycled in star-forming regions to form new stellar bodies. The youngest stars that have formed during the past five or six billion years are referred to as Population I stars, and have the highest abundance of heavy elements. Our sun is a Population I star. Older stars contain fewer heavy elements because there had been fewer generations of stars before them. We call these Population II stars, and they live in the oldest regions of our Milky Way galaxy.

Population III stars, however, have been purely hypothetical up until now. 

The spectrum of the clump of pristine helium gas that has provided evidence for the first stars.  (Image credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Ralf Crawford (STScI))

These would have been the first stars to form, and because no other stars came before them, they would have contained no heavy elements and be made from only the pristine hydrogen and helium forged during the Big Bang. These first stars are also thought to have been extremely luminous, with masses equal to at least several hundred suns.

Although astronomers still haven't seen Population III stars directly, Maiolino's team detected indirect evidence for them in GN-z11. NIRSpec observed a clump of ionized helium near the edge of GN-z11.

"The fact that we don't see anything else beyond helium suggests that this clump must be fairly pristine," said Maiolino in a statement. "This is something that was expected by theory and simulations in the vicinity of particularly massive galaxies from these epochs — that there should be pockets of pristine gas surviving in the halo, and these may collapse and form Population III stars."

This helium gas is being ionized by something that's producing huge amounts of ultraviolet light, with that something inferred as the  Population III stars. Potentially, the helium witnessed is leftover material from those stars' formation. The amount of ultraviolet light required to ionize all that gas requires about 600,000 solar masses of stars in total, shining with a combined luminosity 20 trillion times brighter than our sun. These figures suggest distant galaxies such as GN-z11 would've been more adept at forming massive stars than galaxies in the modern universe.

Meanwhile, according to a second set of results, Maiolino's team also found evidence for a two-million-solar-mass black hole at the heart of GN-z11.

"We found extremely dense gas that is common in the vicinity of supermassive black holes accreting gas," said Maiolino in the same statement. "These were the first clear signatures that GN-z11 is hosting a black hole that is gobbling matter."

The team also detected a powerful sleet of radiation flowing off the accretion disk of matter swirling around the black hole as well as ionized chemical elements typically found near accreting black holes. It is the most distant supermassive black hole discovered so far, the team says, and its gluttonous appetite leads to its accretion disk becoming dense and hot, and shining brightly. This, combined with the Population III stars, is what makes GN-z11 shine so brightly, the researchers believe, without breaking standard cosmology as some have prematurely claimed.

The study on the ionized helium clump and Population III stars has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, and a preprint can be found here. Meanwhile, the study on NIRCam observations of the black hole were published on 17 January in the journal Nature

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Keith Cooper
Contributing writer

Keith Cooper is a freelance science journalist and editor in the United Kingdom, and has a degree in physics and astrophysics from the University of Manchester. He's the author of "The Contact Paradox: Challenging Our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020) and has written articles on astronomy, space, physics and astrobiology for a multitude of magazines and websites.

  • Torbjorn Larsson
    Seems Pop III stars is the best explanation, which is very satisfying!

    That the models of the HeII clump dissuades direct collapse black hole illumination while models of the AGN allows for stellar remnants feeding its supermassive black hole is also satisfying. Though it could be a direct collapse black hole the observed five times Eddington rate episode is suggestive of the stellar remnants pathway.
  • rod
    I read an earlier report on this topic.

    Has JWST finally found the first stars in the universe?,, June 2023.

    My note. "This study isn't enough to prove the presence of Population III stars, but it's a compelling argument."

    A good objective statement. However, other reports on Population III stars do not limit to 500 Msun size. Others show 10^4-10^5 and interpretations of some gases as containing fossil fingerprints of these Population III stars. No confirmed pristine gas from BBN has been firmly established in the universe. Cosmology calculators show light-time 13.280 Gyr and comoving radial distance 31.905 Gly away from Earth today. Space expanding at 2.2514282E+00 or 2.25 x c velocity using H0 = 69 km/s/Mpc. The stellar evolution along the comoving radial distance from Earth today is unknown and unobservable, along with any Population III stars postulated were there and how they may have evolved.