Astronomers working with NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have detected what they believe to be the most distant object ever discovered — a tiny galaxy residing 13.2 billion light years away. Given that the universe was only 500 million years old at the time, this galaxy must have been among the very first star clusters to have emerged — a new phase of cosmological events that pulled the universe out of its primordial darkness.
To make the discovery, the astronomers used more than just telescopes — they also used a convenient interstellar magnification effect called gravitational lensing. Predicted by Einstein, this phenomenon occurs when the gravity of foreground objects warps and magnifies the light from background objects. In this case, the far-away galaxy was magnified by a factor of 15, allowing the astronomers to catch a glimpse. The astronomers' accomplishment was made all the more amazing when considering that the galaxy is only 1% of the mass of the Milky Way.
That's incredible. Astronomers have detected a small and compact object that's only 1/100th the mass of our own galaxy — and at a distance of 13.2 billion light years! Imagine what we'll discover when the next generation of space-based telescopes are finally up-and-running.
And the science backing this claim is on solid ground. A team of astronomers led by Wei Zheng of The Johns Hopkins University detected the galaxy across five different wavebands. Normally, distant galaxies are glimpsed in a single color, but by using the Cluster Lensing and Supernova Survey with Hubble program (CLASH), the Hubble Space Telescope detected the galaxy in four wavelength bands. Spitzer's Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) confirmed the fifth band.
The light from this galaxy started its epic journey to Earth back when the universe was just 3.6% of its present age. Astronomers believe that this galaxy would have been one of many to have emerged around this time as stars started to form and coalesce for the very first time. In a way, it's a precursor to more "modern" galaxies that have had the time to merge with larger clusters of stars. In a sense, it's a glimpse of what the universe must have looked like when it was only 500 million years old.
The entire paper can be read in Nature.
Images via NASA/ESA/STScI/JHU.