Scientists have observed what they believe to be the most distant and oldest galaxy ever detected — a discovery which could provide insight into the nature of the universe in its infancy.
“This galaxy is the most distant object we have ever observed with high confidence,” Wei Zheng, the leading astronomer of the team at Johns Hopkins University that noticed the galaxy on multiple images from both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, told ScienceBlog. At 13.2-billion years old, we are technically seeing this galaxy when it was very young, but its light is only reaching Earth now.
In the big image at left, the many galaxies of a massive cluster called MACS J1149+2223 dominate the scene. (NASA / Space Telescope Science Institute)
According to DiscoveryNews, scientists have gauged that the overall age of the universe is 13.7 billion years, which would make this galaxy almost as old as the universe itself and born from a time dubbed "The Dark Ages." The universe is believed to have started building galaxies 500 million years after the Big Bang.
Galaxies this far away are nearly impossible to see even with advanced telescopes due to their low light. Zheng and his team banked on the Hubble telescope finding a cluster of young galaxies called MACS J1149+2223 that have a heavy gravitational pull able to bend and magnify light from a far more distant object than could be seen from Earth. According to ScienceBlog, this provides more evidence than any prior claims of similarly-aged galaxies.
Previously, the oldest-known galaxy discovered by NASA was unconfirmed but was also believed to be around 13.2 billion years old.
In June, a team of Japanese astronomers spotted what they claimed was the oldest-known galaxy at 12.91 billion years.
"We are likely just seeing the tip of the iceberg," University of Arizona astronomer Daniel Stark told DiscoveryNews.
Zheng's team's findings have been published in a paper available here.
Clarification: Language has been changed to indicate that the galaxy was observed at a distance of 13.2 billion light-years.