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Hubble Space Telescope spies most distant galaxy

"We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble," said lead researcher Pascal Oesch.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 3, 2016 at 4:51 PM

NEW HAVEN, Conn., March 3 (UPI) -- The Hubble Space Telescope has broken another record, spying the most distant galaxy yet identified by astronomers.

The light signature captured by Hubble and identified by an international team of astronomers belongs to Galaxy GN-z11. The imagery reveals the hot, young galaxy as it was just 400 million years after the Big Bang -- its light having journeyed to Earth from 13.4 billion light-years away.

Researchers responsible for the new discovery say they pushed Hubble to its limits, and until another, more powerful space telescope is launched, it will be near impossible to find a more distant galaxy.

"This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope," astronomer Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University said in a press release.

Astronomers recalled their feat in a paper published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal.

"We've taken a major step back in time, beyond what we'd ever expected to be able to do with Hubble," Pascal Oesch, lead author of the new study and an astronomer at Yale University, said in a news release. "We managed to look back in time to measure the distance to a galaxy when the Universe was only three percent of its current age."

The expansion of the universe and resulting red shift effect made it possible to measure the galaxy's distance. As light sources move away from our Earth-bound vantage, emissions are stretched into longer, redder wavelengths.

The previous record-holder, EGSY8p7, boasted a redshift of 8.68. GN-z11 features a redshift of 11.1, suggesting a distance of 13.4 billion light-years.

Though GN-z11 is significantly smaller than the Milky Way, it hosts a tremendous rate of star formation. Models describing cosmic evolution don't predict such a sizable galaxy so soon after the birth of the universe.

"The discovery of GN-z11 showed us that our knowledge about the early Universe is still very restricted," said Ivo Labbe, an astronomer at the University of Leiden. "How GN-z11 was created remains somewhat of a mystery for now. Probably we are seeing the first generations of stars forming around black holes?"

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