Astronomers Discover Furthest Galaxy Ever

Posted November 16th, 2012 at 7:05 pm (UTC-4)

Composite image of the newly discovered galaxy - MACS0647-JD. The inset at left shows a close-up of the young dwarf galaxy. (Photo: NASA, ESA, & M. Postman and D. Coe (STScI) and CLASH Team)

Composite image of the galaxy cluster which helped reveal the newly discovered galaxy – MACS0647-JD. The inset at left shows a close up of the young dwarf galaxy. (NASA)

Scientists have discovered what could be the oldest, most distant galaxy in the universe, thanks to a unique combination of man-made and natural telescopes.

The newly discovered galaxy, MACS0647-JD, was found by the Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH).

It is about 13.3 billion light years, or 125,825,000,000,000,000,000,000 km, from Earth. Scientists are getting to see it just as it was 420 million years after the Big Bang, or when the universe was only three percent of its current age of about 13.7 billion years.

Astronomers made the discovery by combining the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope and a natural zoom effect called gravitational lensing, which uses enormous galaxy clusters as interstellar telescopes to magnify distant galaxies behind them.

The effect is achieved when the light rays from the distant object are bent by the gravity of the huge galaxy clusters, just like a giant cosmic lens, that lie between the object and  Earth.

“While one occasionally expects to find an extremely distant galaxy using the tremendous power of gravitational lensing, this latest discovery has outstripped even my expectations of what would be possible with the CLASH program,” said Rychard Bouwens of Leiden University in the Netherlands, a co-author of the study that outlined the discovery. “The science output in this regard has been incredible.”

The massive galaxy cluster that’s making the distant galaxy appear brighter than it normally would, providing the natural boost to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, , is called MACS J0647.7+7015 and is about five billion light years away.

The Hubble in orbit above the Earth (Photo: NASA)

Hubble in orbit above the Earth (Photo: NASA)

Because of the gravitational lensing provided by the cluster, the CLASH team was able to observe three magnified images of MACS0647-JD with the Hubble.

“This cluster does what no man-made telescope can do,” said Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute, who leads the CLASH team. “Without the magnification, it would require a Herculean effort to observe this galaxy.”

The astronomers say that the distant galaxy is so small, about 600 light years across according to their observations that it may be going through its first stages formation. Our own Milky Way galaxy is about 150,000 light years across.

“This object may be one of many building blocks of a galaxy,” says Dan Coe from the Space Telescope Institute and lead author of the study.  “Over the next 13 billion years, it may have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of merging events with other galaxies and galaxy fragments.”

The galaxy could turn out to be too far away for astronomers to confirm its distance with any of the current available technology.  But once the new James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018, astronomers expect to be able to take a definitive measurement of its distance and to study the properties of the galaxy in more detail.

MACS0647-JD, is very young and only a tiny fraction of the size of our Milky Way. The object is observed 420 million years after the big bang.   (Video: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI))

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

5 responses to “Astronomers Discover Furthest Galaxy Ever”

  1. jobardu says:

    What puzzles me, as a lay person, is how this Galaxy evolved. We observe it 13.3 billion years ago. If it has evolved over the next 13 billion years do we see it at different distances and times. How do we know that we aren’t seeing the same galaxy numerous times in numerous locations and thus overcounting the number and distribution of galaxies?

    • janco says:

      forget about galaxy 13.3 billion LY away where it had been 13.3 billion years ago.
      Due to universe expansion and its ever increasing speed, this galaxy is out of sight forever, speeding away and outrunning the light, perhaps 40-50 billion light years away from us at this time.
      Andromeda is the closest galaxy to Milky Way and is getting closer every second. We have the ability to observe and record Andromeda’s gradual evolution. Saving data from Hubble telescope to hard disc today and passing this info to future observers, let’s say 1 million years younger. Besides occasional Supernovae flashes, there would be probably too little to compare in such a short period of time.
      Yet, there’s something quite intriguing in you question.
      Let’s assume beam of light emitted by a galaxy that made a pass by Earth long time ago. This beam then makes a forced huge U turn deep in space due to multiple gravitational pulls from matter and clumps of dark matter, and passes Earth yet again. This would result in observing the same galaxy in two different locations in sky. If we could somehow verify that both images originate from one source, we would then be able to see such galaxy in two separate evolution stages at the same time.

  2. dirksenshoe says:

    Did we learn anything about galaxies 133 B years ago? Such as from spectroscopic data (and that’s all there is) indicating the presence or amounts of dark matter or dark energy. Any anti matter indicated? Though not. Just light.

  3. Nikola Milovic says:

    If there was a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, I guess it has become a center of expansion of the universe, according to your theory, although I do not think so.
    Then he has to make a telescope that will be able to see the galaxy on the other side of the Big Bang. They did not, I guess. galaxies created just for us-linear. Does exist them right and left from the Big Bang, our first ancestor ?

  4. James says:

    Simplified, in the same way you don’t see multiple repetitions of autos travelling along a road. Light travelling from an object moves far faster than even the fastest object moving away from us. (Thus you have already “seen” the auto when it was closer, and you have already “seen” the galaxy when it was closer.) This is also the principle of “red shift” in light and the “Doppler effect” in sound: as the object moves away from you, the frequency is shifted downward (wavelengths stretched out), thus the pitch of the auto’s engine is lower and the light of the galaxy is more red.