Stars Telling Tales

JWST Images Continue to Confirm a Genesis-Like Creation Event

It was like finding a needle in a haystack. A 36-strong team of astronomers turned the giant James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) onto one of the most luminous galaxies in the early universe some 13.35 billion light years away and took a long-exposure spectrograph of its halo. When they observed an unusually broad spectral line, prosaically called He III 1640, they knew they were onto something special; they had recorded the best evidence yet for the first stars that had lit up the cosmos—the elusive Population III stars long predicted to exist, if indeed the universe had begun as predicted by the hot big bang model.

The hot big bang model holds that when the universe first came into being, only three elements were created—mostly hydrogen and helium with a pinch of lithium thrown in for good measure. Once the first stars began to form, they generated the heavier elements in their cores via nuclear fusion, and these heavier elements were expelled to interstellar space after the stars died.

It was during the death throes of the universe’s largest stars that heavy elements such as iron, silver, gold, and uranium came into being. Furthermore, as the universe aged over time, it became steadily enriched in these heavy elements. These heavy elements, in turn, found their ways into the atmospheres of later generations of stars, where they can be identified by their unique spectral signatures.

Relics of the Cosmic Creation Event

Population I stars, such as our Sun, are located within the vast disk of spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, and have the highest enrichments of heavier elements. Population II stars are located in the halos of galaxies and have significantly lower levels of heavy elements. They are thus thought to be older than the Population I stars that inhabit galactic disks.

But if the predictions of all the hot big bang models are true, astronomers ought to be able to find stars dating all the way back to the very early universe that do not contain elements other than hydrogen, helium, and lithium. These are the so-called Population III stars, suns formed from the pristine matter from the big bang.

Though Population III stars have been predicted to exist for over half a century, no one has uncovered such a star, though we’ve come close in recent years. The more massive a star is, the faster it squanders its nuclear fuel and the shorter its lifespan. It thus follows that stars with lower mass will have much longer lifetimes. Cosmologists have predicted that some very old low-mass stars, with trace amounts of heavy elements, ought to be present in the halos of large spiral galaxies, and indeed a recent survey picked up seven of these slightly polluted, near-Population III stars in the remote halo of our galaxy (“slightly polluted” by the ashes of firstborn stars formed).

The most massive Population III stars though, forged from only hydrogen, helium, and lithium and tipping the scales at hundreds of times larger than the Sun, have lifetimes of just a few tens of thousands of years. What’s more, such stars can only exist in the very early universe, which means that they must be very far away, forcing astronomers to look back through time to within a few hundred million years after the big bang. But at these mind-boggling distances, even the extraordinarily powerful JWST is incapable of imaging individual stars such as these, however luminous they are. The only realistic way to find them is to search for star clusters within early galaxies.

A Bright Cosmic Dawn

And that’s exactly the approach taken by the team of 36 astronomers. They used JWST’s spectrographs to capture long-exposure spectra of the halo of a small but highly luminous galaxy named GN-z11 located some 13.35 billion light years away. Using a spectral tracer line for these first stars, the team picked up a greatly broadened HeIIl1640 emission line resulting from a torrent of high-energy radiation that could only derive from hot, supermassive stars, some 100-500 times the mass of our sun and completely devoid of heavier elements.

Although further observations need to be conducted, the discovery yields the most direct and definitive evidence to date for the existence of these supermassive Population III stars predicted by virtually all big bang models. It thus provides the clearest picture yet of the cosmic dawn, that early epoch when stars first began to shine.

Commenting on the significance of the discovery, astronomer and leading Christian apologist, Dr. Hugh Ross said:

One major benefit of this latest discovery is this: as astronomers learn more about the cosmic dawn, their insights will reveal which of several big bang creation models provides the most accurate description of the origin and history of the universe. I’m confident that a more detailed and precisely defined big bang model will yield yet more evidence that what the Bible declared thousands of years ago about the origin and the history of the universe is, in fact, true. Thus, it will strengthen the case for the divine inspiration and accuracy of the Bible, giving people around the world more reasons to believe in the One who created the universe and inspired the Scriptures.

Wise words indeed. Seen in this light, the “closing in” on the elusive Population III stars bolsters our confidence in the reliability of God’s Word and in God as Creator and Redeemer of those who choose to seek him and live with him for all eternity.

is that author of eight books on amateur and professional astronomy. His latest book is Choosing & Using Binoculars, a Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts (Springer Publishing, 2023).

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