Galaxy 13.1 billion Years Away Shines Brighter than Even Our Own Milky Way

By Gabrielle Jonas on November 2, 2013 4:48 PM EDT

The Galaxy Furthest Away From Our Own That We've Ever Seen
The light from this galaxy traveled more than 13 billion years to get to us. (Photo: NASA)

Astrophysicists recently confirmed the existence of a galaxy furthest away from us ever seen before. Light travelled 13.1 billion years before reaching us from the so-called z8_GND_5296, galaxy, according to a study published in Nature.

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Astrophysicists at the University of Texas at Austin used a sensitive infrared spectrometer on the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure the galaxy's redshift to reveal the signatures of chemical elements in light from the galaxy. Light can carry a spectroscopic signature from hydrogen, made when stars form, and can reveal the presence of other elements, such as carbon, too.

A spectrographic analysis of images sent back by the Hubble Space Telescope places it "at an epoch 700 million years after the Big Bang," according to Nature, which published the results in late October. "That makes it the most distant spectroscopically confirmed galaxy," Nature's editor added.

And that galaxy is far brighter than our own galaxy.

"This galaxy's colors are consistent with a significant metal content, and it has a surprisingly high star-formation rate of about 330 solar masses per year, more than 100-fold greater than that seen in the Milky Way," the editor of Nature writes. "The authors suggest that there may be many more such sites of intense star formation in the early Universe than previously expected."

As spectacularly vibrant as that galaxy must have been, it most likely doesn't exist anymore, as we are seeing it 13.1 billion years later.

The most distant galaxies are those whose light takes the longest to reach us. As a result, when we look at distant galaxies, we are looking back further in time. It is the fervent wish of astrophysicists to be able to look all the way back into the universe's first few hundred million years, when the first galaxies formed. This may become a reality within the next six years, when astrophysicists plan to probe far enough back in time to "see" a universe even before the formation of galaxies. They even hope to have a front-row seat for when the first stars formed.

The same day that Nature published it's the finding, National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Great Observatories launched a collaborative three-year project called Frontier Fields to find galaxies 100 times fainter than what the Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra space telescopes can see presently.

NASA will be looking at six massive clusters of galaxies. But it's not what's inside those clusters that intrigues NASA: It's what's behind them. The Space Administration will endeavor to use the light of galaxy clusters closer to us as "natural zoom lenses found in space" to see the more distant galaxies. The natural zoom lens is created by the gravitational warping of light by those closer galaxy clusters. And that warped light, in turn, will render the further galaxies bright enough to be analyzed via spectroscopy.

But no matter how spectacular the equipment, or clever the methodology, astronomers know they will ultimately hit a wall. For the first 380 thousand years post-big bang, the universe was a "hot mess" of plasma consisting of free-flying electrons and protons, too hot for them to electromagnetically bind with one another. The free-flying electrons rendered the cosmos too opaque for light, and visibility by us billions of years plus even centuries of ingenuity later.

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