Scientists have confirmed the discovery of the most distant galaxy ever found, and the data could shed light on a period of the early universe when light couldn't travel from one galaxy to another.
Astronomers have uncovered the most-distant galaxy yet confirmed – an object hinting that the early universe may have formed more stars and displayed more chemical complexity than researchers previously believed.
In addition, the researchers may have caught the galaxy in the act of helping to burn off a dense fog of molecular hydrogen between galaxies, lifting the universe out of a period known as the cosmic dark ages. This period lasted about 170 million years, during which the fog prevented light from traveling from one galaxy to another.
The galaxy, labeled z8_GND_5296, appears some 13.1 billion light-years away in the northern sky. Its distance corresponds to a time when the universe was only 700 million years old.
Several dozen galaxies have been spotted at this or greater distances, the researchers acknowledge. But only five others have had their distances confirmed using a key spectral marker. All five are slightly closer than the new galaxy, described by a team led by University of Texas astronomer Steven Finkelstein. A formal report on the team's observations are set to appear in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
The researchers observed the galaxy when it was perhaps 10 million to 15 million years old. The galactic infant was puny by today's standards; it sported only 0.1 percent of the Milky Way's considerable mass.
At the time, however, it was forming stars at a furious pace – the equivalent of some 330 suns a year, by mass, compared with 1 to 7 solar masses a year in the Milky Way today. The rate is so high that the researchers estimate if that rate had been consistent through that point in the galaxy's evolution, the total mass of all its stars would double at least once every 4 million years.