Hubble Space Telescope spies galaxy 32 billion light years away

March 29, 2016 by Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
This is a photo of the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

When a team of astronomers found a galaxy in the direction of Ursa Major two years ago, they weren't sure what to make of it.

GN-z11, as they named it, seemed small, reddish and unexpectedly bright. It appeared far away even by cosmic standards. But because it was beyond the optimal reach of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, it left them puzzled.

Now they're certain it represents history.

The international team, which includes an astronomer based in Baltimore, pushed Hubble to its limits this year to demonstrate that GN-z11 is the most distant galaxy ever observed.

"The light that left this galaxy that we're observing now left the galaxy 13.4 billion years ago," said Gabriel Brammer, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and the study's second author. "As far as we know, the universe itself is about 13.8 billion years old. We're seeing a galaxy as it was when the universe was about 3 percent of its current age."

The light from GN-z11 is 200 million years closer to the Big Bang than that of the previous record-holder, a galaxy called EGSY8p7 that was found last year. That puts GN-z11 about 32 billion light years away.

Because expansion of the universe over billions of years makes distance calculation complex, astronomers generally represent distance as a function of time -how long it takes light rays originating at a given object to reach us.

Another way they express distance is through a unit of measurement called . The farther away an object, the longer - and therefore redder - the light wavelengths are when they reach us.

The spectroscopic redshift of EBSY8p7 was measured at a sizable 8.8, then believed to be at or beyond the outer edge of Hubble's range. GN-z11 has a redshift of 11.1, such a big jump that few saw it coming.

The findings - described in a recent article in The Astrophysical Journal - give scientists what appears to be their best view yet of conditions near the end of the so-called Dark Ages of the Universe, when the cosmos was still opaque and just before the first stars and quasars formed.

"We've taken a major step back in time, beyond what we'd ever expected to be able to do with Hubble," said Pascal Oesch, a Yale University astronomer and the study's principal investigator.

Oesch and his team discovered GN-z11 in 2014 during a routine survey of a small patch of sky.

In addition to taking note of the galaxy, they used imaging from both the orbiting Hubble - the most powerful telescope in history - and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared instrument in Pasadena, Calif., to ascertain its color to estimate its distance.

They came up with an estimated redshift of 10.2, which in itself would have been a record for Hubble, but the image came with enough visual interference, or "noise," that the number had a sizable margin of error.

Also, Brammer said, team members couldn't be sure they weren't seeing an "interloper" - a much closer object - by mistake.

But the galaxy's unusual brightness gave investigators a lucky second option: to use a more exacting measurement method known as spectroscopy - a way of splitting the visible light into its component colors - to firm up the distance estimate.

Analyzed with this method, GN-z11 registered the record redshift of 11.1 - and it exhibited many of the clear properties of an infant galaxy, not an interloper.

For one thing, the team found, even though it's only 0.04 percent the size of our Milky Way galaxy, GN-z11 appears to be forming stars at a staggering rate, about three times more rapidly than expected and 20 times more quickly than the Milky Way.

That, they say, is why it's so much more luminous than many models predicted.

"Our earlier work had suggested that such bright should not exist so early in the universe," Marijn Franx, a team member from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, told Astronomy Magazine.

"What we're seeing is young stars, massive stars, stars just being formed. At first glance, this galaxy appeared to be red, but that was because it's so far away. On closer look, it's actually very blue," Oesch said.

Hubble has amassed hundreds of images of galaxies in the range of redshift 7 or 8 in its 26-year existence, Brammer said, allowing astronomers to develop a relatively clear picture of those galaxies' general properties - their star formation rates, their chemical makeup, their brightness - at those times and distances.

That has helped scientists create a fuller, more credible map of how the universe evolved back to about half a billion years after the Big Bang.

It's harder to extrapolate such a clear picture from a single example of a redshift higher than 11, but astronomers say it's still striking to see evidence that at least one galaxy was up, running and fully active so much earlier than many previously believed.

Astronomers believed there had to be a sizable time gap between the Big Bang and the eras in which the first stars took shape, forming the groups that would become galaxies, Oesch said.

The team's work suggests the gap is smaller and the primordial population more active.

Some in the field remain skeptical of the findings.

Astronomer Richard Ellis of the European Southern Observatory said in an email that the luminosity the group claims is three times higher than that of similar bodies "at much later times," and that astronomers seeking to measure distances greater than redshift 10 usually do so in conjunction with powerful ground-based telescopes such as the ones at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Ellis said, "The ultimate proof can only come from a higher resolution spectrum such as those published for previous record-holders, either via a long integration with a ground-based telescope or, shortly, with the James Webb Space Telescope" - the Hubble's more powerful successor, which is now under construction and expected to be launched in 2018.

Everyone agrees that the Hubble has looked as far off in the universe as it's going to, given the size of its primary mirror (2.4 meters in diameter) and other limitations.

The Space Telescope Science Institute, which calibrates Hubble's instruments and interprets its raw data, is well along in the process of helping NASA build the Webb telescope, with a 6.5-meter mirror.

Astronomers say Hubble's recent feats suggest the Webb will routinely be able to look farther, providing better answers to what Oesch calls "the very, very big" questions.

"Where do these galaxies come from? Where did we all come from? Where did everything start?" he asked. "That's what we're really asking. We're getting closer all the time."

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joefarah
2.6 / 5 (10) Mar 29, 2016
OK, wait a minute. 32 billion light years. That means the light took 32B years to reach us, or at least half that, if it moves away from us at near the speed of light. And both those figures are older than the universe. So how is this possible??? Typo?
Da Schneib
4.3 / 5 (12) Mar 29, 2016
Nope. The universe has expanded since that galaxy was formed. The light we're seeing left that galaxy 13.4 billion years ago; since then, the galaxy has moved until its location is 32 billion light years away.

Says so right there in the article, IF YOU BOTHERED TO READ IT.
Bigbangcon
2.5 / 5 (11) Mar 29, 2016
Quick! We need more Band-Aids to do some patch-up work on the timing of the Big Bang!
Da Schneib
4.4 / 5 (13) Mar 29, 2016
Quick! We need more Band-Aids to do some patch-up work on the timing of the Big Bang!
You mean like the Hubble Flow? Which was identified in, wait for it, the 1930s?

Nothing like a little two hundred year old science to spice things up, huh?

Welcome to the nineteenth century.

Idiot.
john33
4.7 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2016
Does this mean that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light?
Da Schneib
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2016
Nope. See General Relativity.

On edit: to be fair, yes, some portions of what we could see 13.6 billion years ago have moved beyond the horizon of the visible universe, and are now receding from us faster than the speed of light. But we won't see them go beyond the horizon for some time yet. At the time we're seeing they weren't that far away yet.
ROBTHEGOB
2.1 / 5 (11) Mar 30, 2016
There was no big bang. The Big Bang Theory is the Flat Earth Theory of the 20th century. Get over it.
EnsignFlandry
2.3 / 5 (6) Mar 30, 2016
Does this mean that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light?


Yes.

There was no big bang. The Big Bang Theory is the Flat Earth Theory of the 20th century. Get over it.


Please provide the evidence for your assertion. Waiting...waiting...waiting...
EnsignFlandry
3 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2016
OK, wait a minute. 32 billion light years. That means the light took 32B years to reach us, or at least half that, if it moves away from us at near the speed of light. And both those figures are older than the universe. So how is this possible??? Typo?


Inflation of the (very) early universe.
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2016
Does this mean that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light?


This is a bit of a trick question.

Locally space in the universe does not expand faster than light (possibly inside black holes - but that's an entirely different issue).
But if you take two points that are reasonably far apart at universal scales then the distance between them can increase faster than light can cover the distance. This is because every bit of local expansion on a line between them adds up.

Expansion is about 74km/sec/Mpsc. So at a distance of (currently) 4 gigaparsec (roughly 13ly) the cumulative expansion between two such points starts to exceed c.
(To be taken with a grain of salt as expansion is not entirely constant over the history of the universe - but it's a good approximation)

Note that this is NOT movement. This is expansion. Nothing is moving faster than light in any of this.
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 30, 2016
[cont]

OK, wait a minute. 32 billion light years. That means the light took 32B years to reach us,

No. It did not take 32 billion years because space expanded. The light was emitted when the object was a lot closer to us (13.4bn ly away). But due to expansion of space it is now (13.4bn years later) 32bn ly away. We are seeing it as it was 13.4bn years ago.
viko_mx
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 30, 2016
True scientists worship to the Creator. Shamans and soothsayers worship to the golden calf. This explains the fundamental differences in their spoints of view..
All waves propagate in the physical environment because they are periodic oscilations in its structure. It does noe exist waves that are independant form the physical environment in which they propagate. Their main feature is that their amplitude and the energy decreases with the increse of distance to their source due to the resistance of the physical environment in which propagate and scatering.
Electromagnetic waves oscillate in the structure of the vacuum of space have an intrinsic property attenuation with the increasing the distance from the source. So the red shift of light coming from the distant galaxies is not due to the doppler effect, as modern metaphysicist speculate, because this efect is only valid for the static physical environment.
viko_mx
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 30, 2016
The red shif of light is due to the attenuation of electroamnetic waves in th estructure of the vacuum of space. In practice, astrophysicists have no even one accurate method for determining the cosmic distances and their discipline is purely speculative.
viko_mx
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 30, 2016
"It did not take 32 billion years because space expanded. "

Space is geometric object and can not expand.I guess that you do not deal with science, because for the mathematicians and physicists this fact is obvious.
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2016
Space is geometric object and can not expand.

Your GPS would disagree. I know this is hard for you to accept, but you use things day in and day out that actually use this fact. Stating "ain't so" is naive at best (and willfully ignorant at worst)

I guess that you do not deal with science, because for the mathematicians and physicists this fact is obvious

Hmm...I have never heard of a physicistt who does NOT know that space expands. I think you may have to look up he word 'physicist'. I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean what you think it means.

The rest of your posts is the garbled mess it usually is. What meds are you on? Lay off them. It's not doing your state of mind any good.
viko_mx
3 / 5 (4) Mar 31, 2016
You wrote the controling software of GPS system?

GPS system work perfectly without the fictional correction for the fictional curved geometric space that mathematical (non physical) GR theory introduce in meta physical world.
I see no sense to explain to you how exactly works the GPS system. Anyway you are not interested of truth.
Skepticus
5 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2016
AA wrote: "...So at a distance of (currently) 4 gigaparsec (roughly 13ly) the cumulative expansion between two such points starts to exceed c."
So, unless you have FTL, no systems beyond 13 ly from your own can't ever be reached?
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Apr 02, 2016
AA wrote: "...So at a distance of (currently) 4 gigaparsec (roughly 13ly) the cumulative expansion between two such points starts to exceed c."
So, unless you have FTL, no systems beyond 13 ly from your own can't ever be reached?
I think he left out a "billion" there, as in 13Gly.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Apr 02, 2016
AA wrote: "...So at a distance of (currently) 4 gigaparsec (roughly 13ly) the cumulative expansion between two such points starts to exceed c."
So, unless you have FTL, no systems beyond 13 ly from your own can't ever be reached?


I think he left out a "billion" there, as in 13Gly.

Yeah...my bad.
Skepticus
5 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2016
AA wrote: "...So at a distance of (currently) 4 gigaparsec (roughly 13ly) the cumulative expansion between two such points starts to exceed c."
So, unless you have FTL, no systems beyond 13 ly from your own can't ever be reached?


I think he left out a "billion" there, as in 13Gly.

Yeah...my bad.

My bad too. 4 gigaparsec should have rang a bell. It didn't. Thanks guys!

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