The Hubble Space Telescope has detected light from a star within the first billion years of the universe’s existence, NASA announced Wednesday. By Stacey Leasca
According to the space agency, the light, which was detected by the 32-year-old telescope, shows that the star is so far away that “its light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach Earth.” Or, in other terms, the light appears to us now as it did when the universe was only 7 percent of its current age. This beats out the previous record-holder, a star named Icarus, which formed 9.4 billion years ago.
More about the farthest star ever seen discovered by NASA
“We almost didn’t believe it at first, it was so much farther than the previous most-distant, highest redshift star,” astronomer Brian Welch of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, lead author of the paper describing the discovery published in the journal Nature, shared in a statement.
The discovery, NASA notes, was made from data collected during Hubble’s RELICS (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey) program. The data collection was led by co-author Dan Coe at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).
“Normally at these distances, entire galaxies look like small smudges, with the light from millions of stars blending together,” Welch added in the statement. “The galaxy hosting this star has been magnified and distorted by gravitational lensing into a long crescent that we named the Sunrise Arc.”
The team fittingly named the star Earendel, which means “morning star” in Old English.
“Earendel existed so long ago that it may not have had all the same raw materials as the stars around us today,” Welch said. “Studying Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with, but that led to everything we do know. It’s like we’ve been reading a really interesting book, but we started with the second chapter, and now we will have a chance to see how it all got started,” Welch said.
Its age isn’t the only thing impressive about the star. According to the research team, Earendel could be at least 50 times the mass of our galaxy’s sun and millions of times as bright (its brightness may be because it’s a binary star rather than a solo star, which has yet to be determined).
As for how the team spotted the new discovery of the farthest star ever seen, NASA explained that happened thanks to a few neighbouring galaxy cluster, WHL0137-08. According to NASA, the mass from that galaxy helped to warp the very fabric of space, thus magnifying the light from even more distant objects.
NASA officials noted they believe Earendel will continue to be highly magnified for some time. They plan to further observe the star using the James Webb Space Telescope.
“With Webb we expect to confirm Earendel is indeed a star, as well as measure its brightness and temperature,” Coe said. “We also expect to find the Sunrise Arc galaxy [where the star is located] is lacking in heavy elements that form in subsequent generations of stars. This would suggest Earendel is a rare, massive metal-poor star.”
Though impressive, the team has no plans of stopping their explorations here.
“With Webb, we may see stars even farther than Earendel, which would be incredibly exciting,” Welch added. “We’ll go as far back as we can. I would love to see Webb break Earendel’s distance record.”