Light from the young galaxy captured by the orbiting observatories shone forth when the 13.7-billion-year-old universe was just 500 million years old.
The far-off galaxy existed within an important era when the universe began to transit from the so-called "Dark Ages." During this period, the universe went from a dark, starless expanse to a recognizable cosmos full of galaxies. The discovery of the faint, small galaxy accordingly opens up a window into the deepest, remotest epochs of cosmic history.
"This galaxy is the most distant object we have ever observed with high confidence," said Zheng, a principal research scientist in The Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and lead author of a paper appearing in Nature on Sept. 20. "Future work involving this galaxy -- as well as others like it that we hope to find -- will allow us to study the universe's earliest objects and how the Dark Ages ended."
Light from the primordial galaxy traveled approximately 13.2 billion light-years before reaching NASA's telescopes. In other words, the starlight snagged by Spitzer and Hubble left the galaxy when the universe was just 3.6 percent of its present age. Technically speaking, the galaxy has a redshift, or "z," of 9.6. The term "redshift" refers to how much an object's light has shifted into longer wavelengths as a result of the expansion of the universe. Astronomers use "redshift" to describe cosmic distances.
Unlike previous detections of galaxy candidates in this age range, which were only glimpsed in a single color, or waveband, this newfound galaxy has been seen in five different wavebands. As part of the Cluster Lensing and Supernova Survey with Hubble program (CLASH), the Hubble Space Telescope registered the newly described far-flung galaxy in four wavelength bands. Spitzer located it in a fifth band with its Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), placing the discovery on firmer ground.
Objects at these extreme distances are mostly beyond the detection sensitivity of today's largest telescopes. To catch sight of these early, distant galaxies, astronomers rely on "gravitational lensing." In this phenomenon -- predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago -- the gravity of foreground objects warps and magnifies the light from background objects. A massive galaxy cluster situated between our galaxy and the early galaxy magnified the latter's light, brightening the remote object some 15 times and bringing it into view.
Based on the Spitzer and Hubble observations, astronomers think the distant galaxy was spied at a time when it was less than 200 million years old. It also is small and compact, containing only about 1 percent of the Milky Way's mass. According to leading cosmological theories, the first galaxies should indeed have started out tiny. They then progressively merged, eventually accumulating into the sizable galaxies of the more modern universe.
These first galaxies likely played the dominant role in the epoch of reionization, the event that signaled the demise of the universe's Dark Ages. About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, neutral hydrogen gas formed from cooling particles. The first luminous stars and their host galaxies, however, did not emerge until a few hundred million years later. The energy released by these earliest galaxies is thought to have caused the neutral hydrogen strewn throughout the universe to ionize, or lose an electron, the state in which the gas has remained since that time.
"In essence, during the epoch of reionization, the lights came on in the universe," said paper co-author Leonidas Moustakas, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
Astronomers plan to study the rise of the first stars and galaxies and the epoch of reionization with the successor to both Spitzer and Hubble -- NASA's James Webb Telescope, slated for launch in 2018. The newly described distant galaxy will likely be a prime target.
Holland Ford, one of Zheng's colleagues and a co-author on the paper, commented on the findings.
"Science is very exciting when we explore the frontiers of knowledge," said Ford, a physics and astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins. "One of these frontiers is the first few hundred million years after the birth of our universe. Dr. Zheng's many years of searching for quasars and galaxies in the dawn of the universe has paid off with his discovery of a galaxy that we see as it was when the universe was less than 500 million years old.
"With his discovery, we are seeing a galaxy when it was not even a toddler," Ford said. "But this infant galaxy will in its future grow to be a galaxy like our own, hopefully hosting planetary systems with astronomers who will look back in time and see our galaxy in its infancy."More information about Zheng:
Lisa DeNike | EurekAlert!
New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers
21.04.2017 | California Institute of Technology
Light rays from a supernova bent by the curvature of space-time around a galaxy
21.04.2017 | Stockholm University
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
Two researchers at Heidelberg University have developed a model system that enables a better understanding of the processes in a quantum-physical experiment...
Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.
A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.04.2017 | Health and Medicine
21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy