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Astronomers discover most distant galaxy yet

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the farthest confirmed galaxy observed to date.
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the farthest confirmed galaxy observed to date. (Courtesy of NASA, ESA, P. Oesch and I. Momcheva (Yale University), and the 3D-HST and HUDF09/XDF Teams)

Astronomers have peered deeper into the universe than ever before, setting a record for the most distant galaxy ever spotted by telescopes.

The galaxy is more than 13 billion years old, created just 670 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers spotted it deep within Hubble Space Telescope images, and a team led by scientists at Yale University and the University of California confirmed its existence and age using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and a ground-based telescope in Hawaii.

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Astronomers called it a significant step, with more advances expected once powerful telescopes under construction are completed.

"It kind of makes us think this is like the tip of the iceberg," said Jennifer Lotz, an associate astronomer at Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages scientific operations of Hubble and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. "With the next generation of telescopes, we'll start to see a lot more things at the edge of the universe."

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The galaxy, named EGS-zs8-1, stood out in images taken by the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes as one of the brightest and largest objects in the early universe.

Less than a billion years after the Big Bang, which scientists say occurred 13.8 billion years ago, the galaxy had grown to 15 percent of the size of the Milky Way, which contains our solar system, and was rapidly forming massive young stars, according to Pascal Oesch, a Yale postdoctoral fellow who was the study's lead author.

The galaxy is among a handful from the early stages of the universe to be spotted and have its distance measured by scientists. Learning more about those galaxies is crucial to understanding what happened after the Big Bang.

The discovery confirms that massive galaxies existed in the early universe, but they formed new stars significantly faster than galaxies such as the Milky Way and those around it, the scientists said.

"Every confirmation adds another piece to the puzzle of how the first generations of galaxies formed in the early universe," said Pieter van Dokkum, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale and the second author of the study.

The account of the discovery was published Tuesday in the online edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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