Astronomers believe they’ve found the oldest thing they’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a galaxy far, far away from a time long, long ago.
Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That’s a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far.
By now the galaxy is so ancient that it probably doesn’t exist in its earlier form and has already merged into bigger neighbors. Astronomers say that the view of this galaxy is like looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age. In human terms, that would be like looking at a 4-year-old child in the life span of an adult.
The European astronomers calculated the age after 16 hours of observations from a telescope in Chile that looked at light signatures of cooling hydrogen gas.
Earlier this year, astronomers had made a general estimate of 600 to 800 million years after the Big Bang for the most distant fuzzy points of light in the Hubble photograph. In the new study, researchers focused on a single galaxy in their analysis of hydrogen’s light signature, further pinpointing the age.
The new galaxy doesn’t have a name–just a series of letters and numbers. It is being referred to as “the high red-shift blob.” Because it takes so long for light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like 13.1 billion years ago at a time when it was quite young, maybe even as young as 100 million years old. It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars.
What’s most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would ahve formed not too soon after them.
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