Hubble breaks cosmic record, captures most distant galaxy

The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a galaxy 13.4 billion light-years away, just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read

A faint galaxy imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope has shattered the distance record for how far we've seen into space. GN-z11, as it's known, located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major, is a massive 13.4 billion light-years away, a galaxy in its infancy just 400 million years after the universe came into being.

Previously, the farthest we had seen into space was 13.2 billion light-years, announced in October of last year. For this latest discovery, an international team of researchers pushed the Hubble Space Telescope's capabilities to their limits.

"We've taken a major step back in time, beyond what we'd ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only 3 percent of its current age," said principal investigator Pascal Oesch of Yale University.

Enlarge Image

This unassuming blob is GN-z11, the farthest galaxy we have ever laid eyes on (as far as we know).

NASA, ESA, P. Oesch (Yale University), G. Brammer (STScI), P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)

The first galaxies formed as early as 200 million years after the Big Bang, and galaxies can live for billions of years. The Milky Way galaxy, for instance, is thought to be at least 13.2 billion years old. This makes GN-z11 a very wee baby galaxy indeed.

To determine the age of galaxies, astronomers look at the redshift, or increase in wavelength to the red end of the spectrum. The higher the redshift value, the lower the frequency and photon energy of the wave, and the older the light is determined to be.

The previous record holder for the most distant galaxy had a redshift of 8.68, putting its distance at about 13.2 billion light-years. GN-z11 has a redshift of 11.1.

"This is an extraordinary accomplishment for Hubble. It managed to beat all the previous distance records held for years by much larger ground-based telescopes," said Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. "This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope."

According to data collected by both Hubble and Spitzer, GN-z11 is pretty small, about 25 times smaller than the Milky Way. However, it's growing rapidly, creating new stars about 20 times faster than the Milky Way does. It is this furious rate of star formation that makes GN-z11 bright enough to see.

This also indicates that galaxies in the universe's early years could grow very rapidly.

"It's amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon," said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The next generation of both orbital and ground-based telescopes should reveal even more about the early universe, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's replacement set for launch in 2018, the Giant Magellan Telescope, which expects to see first light in 2025, and the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, which expects to see first light in 2020.