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Second-most distant galaxy discovered using James Webb Space Telescope

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Second-most distant galaxy discovered using James Webb Space Telescope


The second- and fourth-most distant galaxies ever observed have been discovered in a region of space known as Pandora’s Cluster, or Abell 2744, using data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Following up on a deep field image of the area, an international team led by Penn State researchers confirmed the distance of these ancient galaxies and inferred their properties using new spectroscopic data — information about light emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum — from JWST. At nearly 33 billion light years away, these incredibly distant galaxies offer insights into how the earliest galaxies might have formed.

Unlike other galaxies confirmed at this distance that appear in images as red dots, the new galaxies are larger and appear like a peanut and a fluffy ball, according to the researchers. A paper describing the galaxies appears today (Nov 13) in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Very little is known about the early universe, and the only way to learn about that time and to test our theories of early galaxy formation and growth is with these very distant galaxies,” said first-author Bingjie Wang, postdoctoral scholar in the Penn State Eberly College of Science and a member of the JWST UNCOVER (Ultradeep NIRSpec and NIRCam ObserVations before the Epoch of Reionization) team that conducted the research. “Prior to our analysis, we knew of only three galaxies confirmed at around this extreme distance. Studying these new galaxies and their properties has revealed the diversity of galaxies in the early universe and how much there is to be learned from them.”

Because the light from these galaxies had to travel for so long to reach Earth, it provides a window into the past. The research team estimates that the light detected by JWST was emitted by the two galaxies when the universe was about 330 million years old and traveled for about 13.4 billion light years to reach the JWST. But, the researchers said, the galaxies are currently closer to 33 billion light years away from Earth due to the expansion of the universe over this time.

“The light from these galaxies is ancient, about three times older than the Earth,” said Joel Leja, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of UNCOVER. “These early galaxies are like beacons, with light bursting through the very thin hydrogen gas that made up the early universe. It is only by their light that we can begin to understand the exotic physics that governed the galaxy near the cosmic dawn.”

Notably, the two galaxies are considerably larger than the three galaxies previously located at these extreme distances. One is at least six times larger at about 2,000 light years across. For comparison, the Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years across, but, Wang said, the early universe is thought to have been very compressed, so it’s surprising that the galaxy is as large as it is.

“Previously discovered galaxies at these distances are point sources — they appear as a dot in our images,” Wang said. “But one of ours appears elongated, almost like a peanut, and the other looks like a fluffy ball. It is unclear if the difference in size is due to how the stars formed or what happened to them after they formed, but the diversity in the galaxy properties is really interesting. These early galaxies are expected to have formed out of similar materials, but already they are showing signs of being very different than one another.”

The two galaxies were among 60,000 sources of light in Pandora’s Cluster detected in one of JWST’s first deep field images taken during 2022, its first year of science operations. This region of space was selected in part because it is located behind several galaxy clusters that create a natural magnification effect called gravitational lensing. The gravitational pull of the clusters’ combined mass warps the space around it, focusing and magnifying any light that passes nearby and providing a magnified view behind the clusters.


In a matter of months, the UNCOVER team narrowed down the 60,000 light sources to 700 candidates for follow up study, eight of which they thought could potentially be among the first galaxies. Then, JWST again pointed at Pandora’s Cluster, recording the candidates’ spectra — a sort of fingerprint detailing the amount of light given off at each wavelength.

“Several different teams are using different approaches to look for these ancient galaxies, and each have their strengths and weaknesses,” Leja said. “The fact that we’re pointing at this giant magnifying lens in space gives us an incredibly deep window, but it’s a very small window so we were rolling the dice. Several of the candidates were inconclusive, and at least one was a case of mistaken identity — it was something much closer that mimics a distant galaxy. But we were lucky, and two turned out to be these ancient galaxies. It’s incredible.”

The researchers also used detailed models to infer the properties of these early galaxies when they emitted the light detected by JWST. As the researchers expected, the two galaxies were young, had few metals in their composition, and were growing rapidly and actively forming stars.

“The first elements were forged in the cores of early stars through the process of fusion,” Leja said. “It makes sense that these early galaxies don’t have heavy elements like metals because they were some of the first factories to build those heavy elements. And, of course, they would have to be young and star-forming to be the first galaxies, but confirming these properties is an important basic test of our models and helps confirm the whole paradigm of the Big Bang theory.”

The researchers noted that, alongside the gravitational lens, JWST’s powerful infrared instruments should be able to detect galaxies at an even further distance, if they exist.

“We had a very tiny window into this region, and we didn’t observe anything beyond these two galaxies, even though JWST has the capability,” Leja said. “That could mean that galaxies just didn’t form before that time and that we’re not going to find anything further away. Or it could mean we didn’t get lucky enough with our small window.”

This work was the result of a successful proposal submitted to NASA suggesting how to use JWST during its first year of science operations. In the first three cycles of submissions, NASA received four to ten times more proposals than available observing time on the telescope would allow and had to select only a fraction of those proposals.


“Our team was very excited and a little surprised when our proposal was accepted,” Leja said. “It involved coordination, quick human action and the telescope pointing at the same thing twice, which is a lot to ask of a telescope in its first year. There was a lot of pressure because we only had a few months to determine the objects for follow up. But JWST was built for finding these first galaxies, and it’s so exciting to be doing that now.”

In addition to Penn State, the team includes researchers from the University of Texas Austin, the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, Yale University, the University of Pittsburgh, Sorbonne Université in France, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Princeton University, Waseda University in Japan, Tufts University and the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research (NOIR) Lab.

This work was supported by NASA, the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Israel Ministry of Science & Technology, the French National Centre for Space Studies, the French National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy, the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, the Dutch Research Council, the European Commission’s and University of Groningen’s CO-FUND Rosalind Franklin program, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the NOIR Lab.



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The unintended consequences of success against malaria

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Second-most distant galaxy discovered using James Webb Space Telescope


For decades, insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor insecticide spraying regimens have been important — and widely successful — treatments against mosquitoes that transmit malaria, a dangerous global disease. Yet these treatments also — for a time — suppressed undesirable household insects like bed bugs, cockroaches and flies.

Now, a new North Carolina State University study reviewing the academic literature on indoor pest control shows that as the household insects developed resistance to the insecticides targeting mosquitoes, the return of these bed bugs, cockroaches and flies into homes has led to community distrust and often abandonment of these treatments — and to rising rates of malaria.

In short, the bed nets and insecticide treatments that were so effective in preventing mosquito bites — and therefore malaria — are increasingly viewed as the causes of household pest resurgence.

“These insecticide-treated bed nets were not intended to kill household pests like bed bugs, but they were really good at it,” said Chris Hayes, an NC State Ph.D. student and co-corresponding author of a paper describing the work. “It’s what people really liked, but the insecticides are not working as effectively on household pests anymore.”

“Non-target effects are usually harmful, but in this case they were beneficial,” said Coby Schal, Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Entomology at NC State and co-corresponding author of the paper.

“The value to people wasn’t necessarily in reducing malaria, but was in killing other pests,” Hayes added. “There’s probably a link between use of these nets and widespread insecticide resistance in these house pests, at least in Africa.”

The researchers add that other factors — famine, war, the rural/city divide, and population displacement, for example — also could contribute to rising rates of malaria.

To produce the review, Hayes combed through the academic literature to find research on indoor pests like bed bugs, cockroaches and fleas, as well as papers on malaria, bed nets, pesticides and indoor pest control. The search yielded more than 1,200 papers, which, after an exhaustive review process, was whittled down to a final count of 28 peer-reviewed papers fulfilling the necessary criteria.

One paper — a 2022 survey of 1,000 households in Botswana — found that while 58% were most concerned with mosquitoes in homes, more than 40% were most concerned with cockroaches and flies.

Hayes said a recent paper — published after this NC State review was concluded — showed that people blamed the presence of bed bugs on bed nets.

“There is some evidence that people stop using bed nets when they don’t control pests,” Hayes said.

The researchers say that all hope is not lost, though.

“There are, ideally, two routes,” Schal said. “One would be a two-pronged approach with both mosquito treatment and a separate urban pest management treatment that targets pests. The other would be the discovery of new malaria-control tools that also target these household pests at the same time. For example, the bottom portion of a bed net could be a different chemistry that targets cockroaches and bed bugs.

“If you offer something in bed nets that suppresses pests, you might reduce the vilification of bed nets.”

The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The review was supported in part by the Blanton J. Whitmire Endowment at NC State, and grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Healthy Homes program (NCHHU0053-19), the Department of the Army, U.S. Army Contracting Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Natick Contracting Division, Ft. Detrick, Maryland (W911QY1910011), and the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (257367).



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Drawing water from dry air

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Second-most distant galaxy discovered using James Webb Space Telescope


Earth’s atmosphere holds an ocean of water, enough liquid to fill Utah’s Great Salt Lake 800 times.

Extracting some of that moisture is seen as a potential way to provide clean drinking water to billions of people globally who face chronic shortages.

Existing technologies for atmospheric water harvesting (AWH) are saddled with numerous downsides associated with size, cost and efficiency. But new research from University of Utah engineering researchers has yielded insights that could improve efficiencies and bring the world one step closer to tapping the air as a culinary water source in arid places.

The study unveils the first-of-its-kind compact rapid cycling fuel-fired AWH device. This two-step prototype relies on adsorbent materials that draw water molecules out of non-humid air, then applies heat to release those molecules into liquid form, according to Sameer Rao, senior author of the study published Monday and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“Hygroscopic materials intrinsically have affinity to water. They soak up water wherever you go. One of the best examples is the stuff inside diapers,” said Rao, who happens to be the father of an infant son. “We work with a specific type of hygroscopic material called a metal organic framework.”

Rao likened metal organic frameworks to Lego blocks, which can be rearranged to build all sorts of structures. It this case they are arranged to create a molecule ideal for gas separation.

“They can make it specific to adsorb water vapor from the air and nothing else. They’re really selective,” Rao said. Developed with graduate student Nathan Ortiz, the study’s lead author, this prototype uses aluminum fumarate that was fashioned into panels that collect the water as air is drawn through.

“The water molecules themselves get trapped on the surfaces of our material, and that’s a reversible process. And so instead of becoming ingrained into the material itself, it sits on the walls,” Ortiz said. “What’s special about these absorbent materials is they have just an immense amount of internal surface area. There’s so many sites for water molecules to get stuck.”

Just a gram of this material holds as much surface area as two football fields, according to Rao. So just a little material can capture a lot of water.

“All of this surface area is at the molecular scale,” Rao said. “And that’s awesome for us because we want to trap water vapor onto that surface area within the pores of this material.”

Funding for the research came from the DEVCOM Soldier Center, a program run by the Department of Defense to facilitate technology transfer that supports Army modernization. The Army’s interest in the project stems from the need to keep soldiers hydrated while operating in remote areas with few water sources.

“We specifically looked at this for defense applications so that soldiers have a small compact water generation unit and don’t need to lug around a large canteen filled with water,” Rao said. “This would literally produce water on demand.”

Rao and Ortiz have filed for a preliminary patent based on the technology, which addresses non-military needs as well.

“As we were designing the system, I think we also had perspective of the broader water problem. It’s not just a defense issue, it’s very much a civilian issue,” Rao said. “We think in terms water consumption of a household for drinking water per day. That’s about 15 to 20 liters per day.”

In this proof of concept, the prototype achieved its target of producing 5 liters of water per day per kilogram of adsorbent material. In a matter of three days in the field, this devise would outperform packing water, according to Ortiz.

In the device’s second step, the water is precipitated into liquid by applying heat using a standard-issue Army camping stove. This works because of the exothermic nature of its water collecting process.

“As it collects water, it’s releasing little bits of heat. And then to reverse that, we add heat,” Ortiz said. “We just put a flame right under here, anything to get this temperature up. And then as we increase the temperature, we rapidly release the water molecules. Once we have a really humid airstream, that makes condensation at ambient temperature much easier.”

Nascent technologies abound for atmospheric water harvesting, which is more easily accomplished when the air is humid, but none has resulted in equipment that can be put to practical use in arid environments. Ortiz believes his device can be the first, mainly because it is powered with energy-dense fuel like the white gasoline used in camping stoves.

The team decided against using photovoltaics.

“If you’re reliant on solar panels, you’re limited to daytime operation or you need batteries, which is just more weight. You keep stacking challenges. It just takes up so much space,” Ortiz said. “This technology is superior in arid conditions, while refrigeration is best in high humidity.”



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3D-printed microstructure forest facilitates solar steam generator desalination

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Second-most distant galaxy discovered using James Webb Space Telescope


Faced with the world’s impending freshwater scarcity, a team of researchers in Singapore turned to solar steam generators (SSGs), which are emerging as a promising device for seawater desalination. Desalination can be a costly, energy-intensive solution to water scarcity. This renewable-powered approach mimics the natural water cycle by using the sun’s energy to evaporate and isolate water. However, the technology is limited by the need to fabricate complex topologies to increase the surface area necessary to achieve high water evaporation efficiency.

To overcome this barrier, the team sought design inspiration from trees and harnessed the potential of 3D printing. In Applied Physics Reviews, the team presents a state-of-the-art technology for producing efficient SSGs for desalination and introduces a novel method for printing functional nanocomposites for multi-jet fusion (MJF).

“We created SSGs with exceptional photothermal performance and self-cleaning properties,” said Kun Zhou, a professor of mechanical engineering at Nanyang Technological University. “Using a treelike porous structure significantly enhances water evaporation rates and ensures continuous operation by preventing salt accumulation — its performance remains relatively stable even after prolonged testing.”

The physics behind their approach involves light-to-thermal energy conversion, where the SSGs absorb solar energy, convert it to heat, and evaporate the water/seawater. The SSG’s porous structure helps improve self-cleaning by removing accumulated salt to ensure sustained desalination performance.

“By using an effective photothermal fusing agent, MJF printing technology can rapidly create parts with intricate designs,” he said. “To improve the photothermal conversion efficiency of fusing agents and printed parts, we developed a novel type of fusing agent derived from metal-organic frameworks.”

Their SSGs were inspired by plant transpiration and are composed of miniature tree-shaped microstructures, forming an efficient, heat-distributing forest.

“Our bioinspired design increases the surface area of the SSG,” said Zhou. “Using a treelike design increases the surface area of the SSG, which enhances the water transport and boosts evaporation efficiency.”

One big surprise was the high rate of water evaporation observed in both simulated environments and field trials. The desalinated water consistently met standards for drinking water — even after a long-time test.

“This demonstrates the practicality and efficiency of our approach,” Zhou said. “And it can be quickly and easily mass-produced via MJF commercial printers.”

The team’s work shows significant potential for addressing freshwater scarcity.

“Our SSGs can be used in regions with limited access to freshwater to provide a sustainable and efficient desalination solution,” said Zhou. “Beyond desalination, it can be adapted for other applications that require efficient solar energy conversion and water purification.”



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