Hubble Space Telescope may be obsolete and about to be replaced but that doesn’t mean the amazing images have stopped coming in. Totally by accident, it was pointed in just the right direction to catch a glimpse of the oldest light ever seen. For now, astronomers think it’s a star but it could be more than one.
Hubble stuns again
The write up in the scientific journal Nature says a team of researchers have “discovered what may be the most distant star humanity has ever seen.”
They call it “Earendel,” which means “morning star” in ye olde English. The photons which ran into Hubble’s detector had been flinging through space for 12.9 billion years or so.
The fun fact connected with that is it means it “dates closer to the Big Bang.” A lot closer. The creation of our universe allegedly happened 13.8 billion years ago. The previous record holder sits at a mere 9 billion.
It all started when Hubble time was booked by an international team of astronomers. One group based at Durham University in the U.K. was directed by the U.S. Space Telescope Science Institute.
They began by closely analyzing a very special set of the Hubble data. It had been collected during a study called RELICS. That stands for Re-ionization Lensing Cluster Survey.
Gravitational “lensing” is a far out and freaky concept. Dr Guillaume Mahler, from Durham University and a primary player on the team proudly notes this “might be the earliest star we will ever see since the Big Bang.”
Let there be light
When God said “let there be light,” our universe popped into existence all at once .0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001th of a second later. Not much happened after that which would appear in a telescope for a really long time. There was too much chaos and confusion going on. It took a while for things to cool down and decompress enough for our physical constants to crystallize. Star formation took a while to accomplish, cosmologically speaking. There probably wasn’t a whole lot to see in that first billion years.
Dr. Mahler was floored. “it was so surprising that it is so much younger than the previous entry of nine billion years, at first I didn’t believe it.” It’s amazing that Hubble was able to get a glimpse.
“The discovery of Earendel is fantastic and there will be many other aspects of the star we will be able to study, which could keep us busy for years to come.” Now that they know where to look, they can’t wait to get the James Webb telescope pointed at it. Webb is the replacement for Hubble. While everyone is super-excited about the discovery, they’re tempering it with some hesitation over “confirming that Earendel is a single star at the moment.”
From what they saw, they can tell that the light comes from something “at least 50 times the mass of our Sun and millions of times as bright, making it one of the most massive stars known.” Earendel appears “directly on, or extremely close to, a ripple in the fabric of space.” Normally, “at these distances, entire galaxies look like small smudges. This galaxy has been magnified and distorted by gravitational lensing into a long crescent that we named the ‘Sunrise Arc.‘”
The way they found it was “thanks to the natural magnification provided by a huge galaxy cluster sitting between us and the star.” That galaxy in particular “is so massive it warps the fabric of space, creating a kind of interstellar magnifying glass that distorts and amplifies the light from objects behind it.”
Dr. Mahler explains that “gravitational lensing is like observing galaxies under the microscope and with technology such as the Hubble telescope, you start to see what is inside.”