British astronomers have discovered light from the most distant object ever observed in space – which has taken a mind-boggling 13.1 BILLION LIGHT to reach earth.
Light particles from the galaxy were emitted 600 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was a mere four per cent of its current 13.7 billion year age.
The Solar System, in comparison, was formed just 4.6 billion years ago and is a third of the age of the newly discovered galaxy.
Astronomers can only see the galaxy in its infancy due to the huge distance it is from Earth.
But they estimate it to be, at the observed age, around 1/100th the size of the Milky Way – the galaxy which includes the Solar System and Earth.
Despite being a fraction of the Milky Way’s size, the newly observed galaxy is still estimated to have a diameter of 5.8 quadrillion miles and contain over one billion stars.
Dr Mark Swinbank, from the University of Durham, said: ”It’s fascinating to look at a galaxy in its infancy and gives us an idea of what the Milky Way was like during this period.”
The galaxy is a mind-boggling 76,840,617,600,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth.
To put the figure into perspective, the space shuttle, travelling at 17,600mph, would take around 4,983,954,545,454 years years to reach it.
It was spotted by an international team of astronomers including scientists from the universities of Bristol, Durham and Edinburgh using the European Southern Observatory’s imaginately named ‘Very Large Telescope’ (VLT).
Located in northern Chile, the VLT is the world’s most advanced optical instrument and sees objects which are four billion times fainter than those seen with the naked eye.
The astronomers measured the distance from earth to the remote galaxy by analysing its glow of light – something which changes from brilliant to faint due to the sheer distance involved.
Any remaining light falls mostly in the infrared part of the spectrum because its wavelength has been stretched by the continuing expansion of the universe – a term known as ‘redshift’.
After two months of observation and analysis, the scientists were able to calculate the galaxy’s redshift by measuring the wavelength of the ‘Lyman-alpha’ emission from hydrogen atoms in the galaxy.
Results showed a record-breaking redshift of 8.55 – with a redshift of 8.60 corresponding to 600 million years after the Big Bang.
The 8.55 exceeds the previous record of 8.2 measured last year for a gamma-ray burst – an energetic form of light which is around a million trillion times as bright as the sun.
Scientists believe this galaxy is particularly significant because it dates back to a period, known as the ‘epoch of reionization’, when the universe’s physical state was changed by radiation from primeval galaxies.
It is hoped that as more galaxies from this era are discovered it should become possible to determine the nature of the sources responsible for this crucial process in the universe’s evolution.
Bristol University physics professor Malcolm Bremer, who carried out the research, said: ”These observations are at the limit of what can be achieved with the best current technology on the best telescopes available today.”
Professor Bremer, who was also behind the discovery of last year’s gamma-ray burst, is optimistic about the future of technology in astronomy.
He added: ”In the near term, improvements to that technology and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (Hubble’s successor) will improve our ability to carry out studies like this.
”In the longer term, larger telescopes such as ESO’s planned 42m E-ELT will be able to study in detail galaxies at these great distances using technology pioneered in the UK.”
The galaxy was named ‘UDFY38135539’ after the Hubble space telescope captured and randomly catalogued it as such.