Good eye, Hubble! Space 'scope spots furthest-ever object

Ancient galaxy beamed its light just after the Big Bang

Galaxy GN-z11

The Hubble Space Telescope may be old enough to rent a car, but the aging orbital lab is still making new discoveries, the latest being the furthest-recorded object ever spotted.

Scientists with the European Space Agency (ESA) said that they have detected the light from GN-z11, which had been an infant galaxy when its light was emitted around 400 million years after the Big Bang.

The galaxy is believed to be at least 13.4 billion light years from Earth, and the detection gives astronomers a look at what they believe was the first generation of galaxies to form after the Big Bang.

The result is also a tribute to Hubble's longevity. Launched in 1990 and serviced by the since-retired NASA space shuttle fleet, Hubble is ancient by modern technological standards, though it has been given significant hardware upgrades over the years.

Scientists previously thought that such distant objects would be detectable only by newer telescopes such as the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope.

"We've taken a major step back in time, beyond what we'd ever expected to be able to do with Hubble," said Yale University fellow Pascal Oesch, lead author of an upcoming paper on the discovery.

"We managed to look back in time to measure the distance to a galaxy when the Universe was only three percent of its current age."

The scientists say that despite the vast distance and age of the GN-z11 galaxy, they are confident about the accuracy of the findings, which were made with spectroscopic readings on Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.

GN-z11 is believed to be at least 150 million light years further away than the previous distance record, and reflects a period in the universe when galaxies were only beginning to form. Astronomers believe that, when the light was emitted from GN-z11, the galaxy was forming new stars at a rate 20 times faster than the Milky Way does today, despite being 25 times smaller.

"It's amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form," said UC Santa Cruz Professor Garth Illingworth.

"It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon."

The astronomers say they will be publishing their paper on the discovery in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. ®

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