Researchers at Texas A&M and the University of Texas have boldly gone where no Aggie and Longhorn has gone before, and have discovered the most distant galaxy ever confirmed.
According to research published in the journal Nature, the galaxy, named z8-GND-5296, is 30 billion light years from earth, meaning the light emitted by the galaxy was created literally at the dawn of the universe, just 700 million years after the Big Bang.
"By finding objects like this and studying their properties, we get a glimpse of what the formation of our own Milky Way galaxy may have looked like, Texas A&M astrophysicist Casey Papovich told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
Papovich said scientists agree that the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years, so when the light that is currently being seen was created, the universe was only 5% of it's current age. In fact, the expansion of the universe has pushed the galaxy 17 billion light years further away from the spot where it was when it created the light that the scientists have seen. It was 13 billion light years away when it was spotted by the researchers. A light year, the standard measurement of vast distances in space, is about six trillion miles.
"Because of its distance, and it has taken the light so long to get to us, we are seeing it as it looked then, not as it looks now," he said.
In fact, researchers using the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world, at the W.M. Keck observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, may have seen so far into the past that other galaxies which were thought to be in that area are hidden by the 'hydrogen wall' which researchers say made up much of universal matter at the dawn of time.
"We were thrilled to see this galaxy," Steven Finkelstein, as assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co researcher with Papovich on the project, said. "Then our next thought was, 'why didn't we see anything else?' We're using the best instrument on the best telescope with the best galaxy sample. And still we only saw this emission line, when we expected to see around six."
He says they may actually seen the transition of the newly born universe from the opaque state of its birth to the neutral state seen today, a transition which has been theorized by researchers. He speculates the other galaxies were hidden in the opaque 'cloud' of the formation of the universe.
Because of the youth of the universe when the galaxy was producing the light that was identified by researchers, it was creating some 300 Sun-like stars each year. The Milky Way today, in the mature universe, creates just one or two Sun-like stars each year.
"It is exciting to know that we are the first people in the world to see this," said Vithal Tilvi, a Texas A&M research associate and co-author of the paper.
"It raises interesting questions about the origins and the evolution of the universe."