Astronomers Measure the Farthest Galaxy Ever Seen in the Universe

Hubble Team Breaks Cosmic Distance Record

This surprisingly bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major.

 NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is an amazing time machine; by looking back through space, astronomers actually look back through time. Now, by pushing Hubble to its limits, an international team of astronomers has shattered the cosmic distance record by viewing the farthest galaxy ever seen. Named GN-z11, this surprisingly bright, infant galaxy is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past. The astronomers saw it as it existed just 400 million years after the big bang, when the universe was only three percent of its current age. At a spectroscopically confirmed redshift of 11.1, the galaxy is even farther away than originally thought. It existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the time when scientists believe the very first stars started to form. At a billion solar masses, it is producing stars surprisingly quickly for such an early time. This new record will most likely stand until the launch of Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will look even deeper into the universe for early galaxies.

This animation shows the location of galaxy GN-z11, which is the farthest galaxy ever seen. The video begins by locating the Big Dipper, then showing the constellation Ursa Major. It then zooms into the GOODS North field of galaxies, and ends with a Hubble image of the young galaxy. GN-z11 is shown as it existed 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only three percent of its present age.

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. This surprisingly bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major.

“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 three percent of its current age,” explained principal investigator Pascal Oesch of Yale University. The team includes scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California.

Astronomers are closing in on the first galaxies that formed in the universe. The new Hubble observations take astronomers into a realm that was once thought to be only reachable with NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

This measurement provides strong evidence that some unusual and unexpectedly bright galaxies found earlier in Hubble images are really at extraordinary distances. Previously, the team had estimated GN-z11’s distance by determining its color through imaging with Hubble and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Now, for the first time for a galaxy at such an extreme distance, the team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to precisely measure the distance to GN-z11 spectroscopically by splitting the light into its component colors.

Astronomers measure large distances by determining the “redshift” of a galaxy. This phenomenon is a result of the expansion of the universe; every distant object in the universe appears to be receding from us because its light is stretched to longer, redder wavelengths as it travels through expanding space to reach our telescopes. The greater the redshift, the farther the galaxy.

Hubble Spectroscopically Reveals Farthest Galaxy to Date GN z11

Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Oesch and B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz), and A. Feild (STScI)

“Our spectroscopic observations reveal the galaxy to be even farther away than we had originally thought, right at the distance limit of what Hubble can observe,” said Gabriel Brammer of STScI, second author of the study.

Before astronomers determined the distance for GN-z11, the most distant galaxy measured spectroscopically had a redshift of 8.68 (13.2 billion years in the past). Now, the team has confirmed GN-z11 to be at a redshift of 11.1, nearly 200 million years closer to the Big Bang. “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 investigator Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. “This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The combination of Hubble’s and Spitzer’s imaging reveals that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. However, the newborn GN-z11 is growing fast, forming stars at a rate about 20 times greater than our galaxy does today. This makes an extremely remote galaxy bright enough for astronomers to find and perform detailed observations with both Hubble and Spitzer.

The results reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. “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,” explained investigator Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

These findings provide a tantalizing preview of the observations that the James Webb Space Telescope will perform after it is launched into space in 2018. “Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory,” Oesch said.

“This new discovery shows that the Webb telescope will surely find many such young galaxies reaching back to when the first galaxies were forming,” added Illingworth.

This discovery also has important consequences for NASA’s planned Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will have the ability to find thousands of such bright, very distant galaxies.

The team’s findings have been accepted for publication in an upcoming edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

Reference: “A Remarkably Luminous Galaxy at z=11.1 Measured with Hubble Space Telescope Grism Spectroscopy” by P. A. Oesch, G. Brammer, P. G. van Dokkum, G. D. Illingworth, R. J. Bouwens, I. Labbe, M. Franx, I. Momcheva, M. L. N. Ashby, G. G. Fazio, V. Gonzalez, B. Holden, D. Magee, R. E. Skelton, R. Smit, L. R. Spitler, M. Trenti and S. P. Willner, 8 March 2016, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/0004-637X/819/2/129

3 Comments on "Astronomers Measure the Farthest Galaxy Ever Seen in the Universe"

  1. Physicists do not understand “red shift”. Hubble himself viewed red shift as a “hitherto unknown principle of nature”.

    The Hubble Constant is H=62km/s/Mpc = c/R= c/cT= 1/T where T is the “age” of the universe. R = c/H = 150GP= auP, the Universe radius is a Penta Astronomic unit. The Age of the Universe is 15.844 Gyears.

    Red shift v=Hd= dc/cT = dc/R, where d is the separation and T is the age.

    The Universe is bounded, R and is finite in size and mass= 2.025E53 kg.

  2. This article makes no sense. The Universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old. So we are seeing light from a galaxy which, when it left that galaxy, was a mere 400 million years after Creation. But it has taken 13.4 billion years to reach us. Now we all know the speed of light is an absolute, limited by the fabric of space and expressed as Epsilon (vacuum) and Mu (vacuum). This means the light has traveled a distance of 13.4 billion light years.

    So here is the problem. Even allowing for the solar system (yet to be) and this galaxy moving apart in opposite directions, it still means the originating galaxy MUST have been a minimum of 6.7 billion light years away from the solar system (yet to be) a mere 400 million years after the universe was formed. So clearly this is impossible.

    Would a patient astro-physicist care to explain how this works? Also, could that person also explain how a galaxy could be formed, as a distinct entity, a mere 400 million years after the Big Bang? I would’ve thought a galaxy who take a considerable amount of time to coalesce after such a high energy event.

  3. Madanagopal.V.C. | March 5, 2016 at 7:31 am | Reply

    GN-z11 the farthest galaxy in Northern Cosmos at 13.4 billion years past formed is determined spectroscopically and distance is confirmed and also the size is deemed to be 25 times larger than that of our Milky Way galaxy as against the size taken to be 25 times smaller then by using the red shift alone. Fine spectrum and analysis of colors of the star into respective red shift and other colors enabled this feat. We have almost touched the time of BIG BANG. The spectacular growth of the galaxies in the beginning is visually found. If you zoom to the past galaxies should appear to be fewer and later galaxies grew all over the cosmos from the primordial field of atoms. Prior to BIG BANG if Multiverse existed is still a hypothetical question since we cannot see the light from them. If entire space is considered a space-time continuum , we can extrapolate the other universes also as space bends with masses of stars and gravity. Other Universes may be circulating around our expanding Universe due to the space time sheet is bent considerably. Here BIG BANG is not a one time phenomena and we can even talk of oscillating Universes. Thank You.

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