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Starts With A Bang

New JWST data confirms, worsens the Hubble tension

How fast is the Universe expanding? Two major methods disagree. New JWST data, just released, strengthens this Hubble tension even further.
NGC 5584 cepheid hubble
This galaxy, NGC 5584, is one of only a few dozen galaxies that are close enough to measure individual Cepheid variable stars within it, yet also have been home to a recently measured (in 2007) type Ia supernova. By observing Cepheid stars in this (and other) galaxies, JWST has just reduced some of the largest uncertainties affecting the distance ladder method, increasing the significance of the Hubble tension even further.
Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Riess (STScI/JHU), L. Macri (Texas A&M University), and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Key Takeaways
  • The two major methods for measuring the cosmic expansion rate are fundamentally incompatible, with the early relic method yielding 67 km/s/Mpc and the distance ladder method revealing 73 km/s/Mpc.
  • Many had hoped, with a new observatory and unprecedented data, that JWST would reveal errors in the distance ladder method, relieving this so-called "Hubble tension."
  • But now that the JWST data is in, it just confirms earlier results to even greater precision and with smaller errors. The "Hubble tension" problem has just gotten worse.

One of today’s greatest cosmic puzzles concerns the expanding Universe.

dark energy accelerated expansion
For the first several billion years of our Universe’s history, the Universe’s expansion rate was decreasing and distant galaxies slow in their recession from ours, as the matter and radiation densities drop. However, for the past ~6 billion years, distant galaxies have been speeding up in their recession, and the expansion rate, though still dropping, is not headed toward zero. Two different methods of measuring the expanding rate give conflicting values; the actual rate of expansion remains controversial.
Credit: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

Two major methods each give low-error, but incompatible, answers.

flight through universe CEERS JWST NASA
Taking us beyond the limits of any prior observatory, including all of the ground-based telescopes on Earth as well as Hubble, NASA’s JWST has shown us the most distant galaxies in the Universe ever discovered. If we assign 3D positions to the galaxies that have been sufficiently observed-and-measured, we can construct a visualized fly-through of the Universe, as the CEERS data from JWST enables us to do here. Measuring the expansion rate is a challenge, as different methods yield different, mutually incompatible results.
Credits: Frank Summers (STScI), Greg Bacon (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph Olmsted (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI); Science by: Steve Finkelstein (UT Austin), Rebecca Larson (RIT), Micaela Bagley (UT Austin)

By tracking an early, relic signal’s evolution, we measure expansion of 67 km/s/Mpc.

acoustic scale Bao CMB
We can look arbitrarily far back in the Universe if our telescopes allow, and the clustering of galaxies should reveal a specific distance scale – the acoustic scale – that should evolve with time in a particular fashion, just as the acoustic “peaks and valleys” in the cosmic microwave background reveal this scale as well. The evolution of this scale, over time, is an early relic that reveals a low expansion rate of ~67 km/s/Mpc.
Credit: E M Huff, the SDSS-III team and the South Pole Telescope team; graphic by Zosia Rostomian

By starting nearby and observing increasing recession with distance, we measure 73 km/s/Mpc.

cosmic distance ladder
The construction of the cosmic distance ladder involves going from our Solar System to the stars to nearby galaxies to distant ones. Each “step” carries along its own uncertainties, especially the steps where the different “rungs” of the ladder connect. However, recent improvements in the distance ladder have demonstrated how robust its results are.
Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Feild (STScI), and A. Riess (JHU)

This discrepancy — the “Hubble tension” — is a modern cosmic conundrum.

early dark energy
Modern measurement tensions from the distance ladder (red) with early signal data from the CMB and BAO (blue) shown for contrast. It is plausible that the early signal method is correct and there’s a fundamental flaw with the distance ladder; it’s plausible that there’s a small-scale error biasing the early signal method and the distance ladder is correct, or that both groups are right and some form of new physics (shown at top) is the culprit. The idea that there was an early form of dark energy is interesting, but that would imply more dark energy at early times, and that it has (mostly) since decayed away.
Credit: A.G. Riess, Nat Rev Phys, 2020

Many speculate an observational error on the “distance ladder” side could be the culprit.

expansion of the Universe
Back in 2001, there were many different sources of error that could have biased the best distance ladder measurements of the Hubble constant, and the expansion of the Universe, to substantially higher or lower values. Thanks to the painstaking and careful work of many, that is no longer possible, as errors have been greatly reduced. New JWST work, not shown here, has reduced Cepheid-related and period-luminosity errors even further than is shown here.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ, 2022

We start by observing Cepheid variable stars within the Milky Way.

RS Puppis hubble light echo
The Variable Star RS Puppis, with its light echoes shining through the interstellar clouds. Variable stars come in many varieties; one of them, Cepheid variables, can be measured both within our own galaxy and in galaxies up to 50–60 million light years away. This enables us to extrapolate distances from our own galaxy to far more distant ones in the Universe. RR Lyrae and tip-of-the AGB branch stars can be used in a similar fashion.
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon (STScI), the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and H. Bond (STScI and Pennsylvania State University)

We accurately infer their distances by measuring astronomical parallax.

The stars that are closest to Earth will appear to shift periodically with respect to the more distant stars as the Earth moves through space in orbit around the Sun. Before the heliocentric model was established, we weren’t looking for “shifts” with a ~300,000,000 kilometer baseline over the span of ~6 months, but rather a ~12,000 kilometer baseline over the span of one night: Earth’s diameter as it rotated on its axis. The distances to the stars are so great that it wasn’t until the 1830s that the first parallax, with a 300 million km baseline, was detected. Today, we’ve measured the parallax of over 1 billion stars with ESA’s Gaia mission.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Then we measure Cepheids in nearby, well-measured galaxies.

cepheids jwst NGC 4258 NGC 5584
The top two panels show two nearby, Cepheid-rich galaxies: NGC 4258 (left) and NGC 5584 (right), with JWST’s field-of-view overlaid atop them. The bottom panels show JWST views, with individually identified Cepheid variables highlighted in each image.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ submitted/arXiv:2307.15806, 2023

Finally, we measure type Ia supernovae within those galaxies and beyond, linking these cosmic “rungs” together.

cepheids and SN ia together
As recently as 2019, there were only 19 published galaxies that contained distances as measured by Cepheid variable stars that also were observed to have type Ia supernovae occur in them. We now have distance measurements from individual stars in galaxies that also hosted at least one type Ia supernova in 42 galaxies, 35 of which have excellent Hubble imagery. Those 35 galaxies are shown here.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ, 2022

Could an error in Cepheids be biasing our measured expansion rate?

expansion of the Universe
Using the cosmic distance ladder means stitching together different cosmic scales, where one always worries about uncertainties where the different “rungs” of the ladder connect. As shown here, we are now down to as few as three “rungs” on that ladder, and the full set of measurements agree with one another spectacularly.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ, 2022

By measuring Cepheids in nearby galaxies, JWST probes this possibility.

nearby galaxy M106 NGC 4258
This nearby spiral galaxy, NGC 4258 (also known as Messier 106), is just ~20 million light-years away but contains many known Cepheids that are similar to Cepheids found in the Milky Way. This is an important galaxy for calibrating the cosmic distance ladder.
Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and R. Gendler (for the Hubble Heritage Team); Acknowledgment: J. GaBany

Observing galaxy NGC 4258, JWST found no photometric bias for Cepheids.

cepheids jwst hst NGC 4258
This image shows several Cepheid variable stars with different periods within nearby galaxy NGC 4258: an important galaxy for Cepheid and distance calibrations. The bottom 6 rows show the same stars as measured by both Hubble (grey labels) and JWST (purple labels) at various wavelengths. The superior resolution in JWST images reduces prior Hubble errors by significant, substantial amounts while validating and remaining consistent with prior results.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ submitted/arXiv:2307.15806, 2023

Instead, it confirmed and enhanced previous Hubble Space Telescope findings.

NGC 5584 with supernova SN 2007af
This composite image shows the barred spiral galaxy NGC 5584 with supernova SN 2007af shining brightly within it. Nearby galaxies with identifiable Cepheid variable stars and that have hosted at least one type Ia supernova within them are incredibly important to the cosmic distance ladder method of measuring the expanding Universe.
Credit: ESO

Cepheids in NGC 5584, which also had a (2007-era) type Ia supernova, also reveal no bias.

JWST hubble tension data calibration
This graph shows the relationship between the magnitude of the brightness of Cepheid variable stars (y-axis) versus their period of variability (x-axis) in galaxies NGC 5584 (top) and NGC 4258 (bottom). The new JWST data is shown in red, while the old Hubble data is shown in grey. The errors and uncertainties of this relation in both galaxies are greatly reduced, primarily owing to JWST’s superior resolution over Hubble’s.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ submitted/arXiv:2307.15806, 2023

The period-luminosity relation, a key calibrator of Cepheids, is now more precise than ever.

A graph illustrating the tension between JWST and Hubble in terms of different types of work.
By enabling a better understanding of Cepheid variables in nearby galaxies NGC 4258 and NGC 5584, JWST has reduced the uncertainties in their distances even further. The lowest points on the graph show the estimate for the distance to NGC 5584 from the expansion rates inferred from the distance ladder (left side) and what’s expected from the early relic method (right side). The mismatch is significant and compelling.
Credit: A.G. Riess et al., ApJ submitted/arXiv:2307.15806, 2023

With superior resolution, JWST has reduced any uncertainties down to their smallest values ever.

expansion of the Universe
Standard candles (left) and standard rulers (right) are two different techniques astronomers used to measure the expansion of space at various times/distances in the past. Based on how quantities like luminosity or angular size change with distance, we can infer the expansion history of the Universe. Using the candle method is part of the distance ladder, yielding 73 km/s/Mpc. Using the ruler is part of the early signal method, yielding 67 km/s/Mpc. With new JWST data, the mystery over the Universe’s expansion rate has deepened further.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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