Astronomers Use Space Warp to Find the Oldest Galaxy Ever Seen

Friday, 12 January 2018 - 10:53AM
Science News
Friday, 12 January 2018 - 10:53AM
Astronomers Use Space Warp to Find the Oldest Galaxy Ever Seen
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Image credit: NASA
While the Hubble telescope is a phenomenal achievement, it has its limitations.

Even the most powerful telescope satellite in orbit can't see everything—hence why there are so many current projects in development that will provide us with even more varied kinds of telescopes to help spot different kinds of things.

The one thing that Hubble is really good at is focusing on a single point that's lightyears away, but even in this role, the telescope can't see everything. It's hard to get a good look at the most distant stars in the universe, thanks to all the light pollution provided by closer galaxies.

In spite of this, researchers have now used Hubble to detect light from a galaxy that is further away than anything we've seen before, using a natural gravitational warp point that acts like a focusing lens, bending light in interesting ways, and helping us to see further than would otherwise be possible.

Referred to as "zoom lenses," some anomalies in space are caused by particularly heavy clusters of stars. By training Hubble on the space around these clusters, scientists at NASA hoped to take a look at some of this distorted light to catch a glimpse of something that would otherwise be too far away and dim for us to be able to see, even using our most advanced technology. The team looked at a series of such spacial warp points, and one managed to bear phenomenal fruit.

Taking a closer look at galaxy cluster SPT-CL J0615-5746, scientists were able to use a space warp to see farther than usual, identifying a teeny tiny few specks of light that represent a galaxy we've never seen before, which has been named SPT0615-JD.

This particular galaxy is very special. Because of the time it takes light to travel across the inky blackness of space, looking at distant stars essentially involves looking back in time. Galaxy SPT0615-JD was created at a very early point in the history of the universe, around five hundred million years after the Big Bang. SPT0615-JD is tiny, around a hundredth of the size of our own galaxy, which may be an indicator that the snapshot of its past that we're looking at comes from a very early time in its lifespan.

According to Brett Salmon, lead author on the paper that details this discovery: "This galaxy is an exciting target for science with the Webb telescope as it offers the unique opportunity for resolving stellar populations in the very early universe." Future research is possible using additional tools like the spectroscope present on the James Webb telescope, helping us to better understand what galaxies looked like in the early days of our universe.

What's also exciting is that now that we've proved how well space-warping zoom lenses can be in analyzing distant, ancient parts of the universe, we can use the technique again to see what else shows up. This could well help us to reach even further back into the history of creation, as we see with our own eyes what was going on in the wake of the Big Bang.

We may not be able to travel back in time physically with any degree of success, but we can at least see what was going on long before the Milky Way existed.
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