Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a bright galaxy located a record-breaking 13.4 billion light years away, the most distant galaxy found yet.
The galaxy, named GN-z11 and located in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major, formed just 400 million years after the Big Bang explosion that marks the beginning of the universe.
“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble,” Yale University astronomer Pascal Oesch said in a statement.
Oesch and colleagues used Hubble’s light-splitting spectrograph to image the unexpectedly bright galaxy, which is pumping out new stars at a rate that is about 20 times faster than what the Milky Way is producing today.
The scientists then analyzed how wavelengths of light from the galaxy had shifted due to the distance traveled. The phenomenon is similar to how the sound of train changes as it recedes into the distance.
Previously, the most distant galaxy was 13.2 billion years away.
“This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope,” added Yale University astronomer Pieter van Dokkum.
The Webb observatory, a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled to fly in 2018. It is more sensitive to longer wavelength, infrared light that will allow researchers to look back at the first objects that radiated after the Big Bang explosion.
With just one percent of the mass of the Milky Way’s stars, GN-z11 is small by modern standards but huge considering how early it formed.
“It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form,” said astronomer Garth Illingworth with the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The new spectroscopic observations of GN-z11 builds on previous observations by Hubble and NASA’s Spitzer infrared space telescope which had led scientists to believe the galaxy was actually closer than it actually was.
The research will be published in next week’s issue of The Astrophysical Journal.