Hubble spots ‘earliest galaxy seen’

Astronomers using the Hubble space telescope have peered 13 billion years back in time to spot what could be the youngest, brightest galaxy ever seen. They were only able to see so far thanks to the gravitational effects of a cluster of galaxies much closer to home.

Distant galaxy hides behind a clusterIt acted like a natural magnifying glass to make the incredibly distant galaxy ten times brighter, bringing it into view. The infant galaxy, undergoing a burst of starbirth, appears as it did soon after the Big Bang that created the universe.

Detailed images taken with Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) were combined with images from a second Nasa infrared space telescope called Spitzer.

It has been dubbed A1689-zD1 and is emerging from the so-called Dark Ages of the universe when it was cold and dark and devoid of stars. Astronomers have previously found other galaxies near the edge of the universe. and Spitzer has detected the glow of the first objects ever created. But they believe the latest find might claim the record for distance.

Space scientist Garth Illingworth of the University of California, said: “We certainly were surprised to find such a bright young galaxy 13 billion years in the past. This is the most detailed look to date at an object so far back in time.”

Fellow scientist Piero Rosati from the European Southern Observatory, Germany, said: “This object is the strongest candidate for the most distant galaxy so far.”

Cosmologists believe the dark ages began about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, as matter in the expanding universe cooled and formed a thick fog of cold hydrogen.

At some point during this era, stars and galaxies started to form. Their collective light heated and cleared the fog, ending the dark ages about a billion years after the Big Bang.

During its lifetime the Hubble telescope has peered ever farther back in time, viewing galaxies at successively younger stages of evolution.

Picture: A massive cluster of yellowish galaxies is seemingly caught in a spider’s web of background galaxies, eerily distorted by gravitational lensing, in the main image. The distant galaxy is invisible in the top right image, taken in visible light, but is revealed in the lower two taken with infrared cameras. Credit: Nasa; ESA; L. Bradley (Johns Hopkins University); R. Bouwens (University of California, Santa Cruz); H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University); and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz).

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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