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Astronomers find most distant galaxy ever, 13.5 billion light-years away: “a giant baby.. of the early universe”

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The newly-identified farthest galaxy is extremely bright in ultraviolet light and it forms “more than 100 stars every single year. This is at least 10 times higher than what we expect for these galaxies.

A multinational team of astronomers, including experts from the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, has discovered the farthest distant astronomical object yet discovered: a galaxy.

The galaxy candidate, known as HD1, is 13.5 billion light-years away and was described in the Astrophysical Journal on Thursday.

The group has two suggestions: HD1 could be creating stars at an incredible rate, and it could even be home to Population III stars, the universe’s first stars, which have never been seen before. HD1 could also be home to a supermassive black hole with a mass 100 million times that of our Sun.

Astronomers find most distant galaxy ever, 13.5 billion light-years away
Astronomers spot the farthest galaxy ever, 13.5 billion light-years away

HD1 is extremely bright in ultraviolet light. To explain this, “some energetic processes are occurring there or, better yet, did occur some billions of years ago,” says Fabio Pacucci, lead author of the MNRAS study. 

At first, the researchers assumed HD1 was a standard starburst galaxy, a galaxy that is creating stars at a high rate. But after calculating how many stars HD1 was producing, they obtained “an incredible rate — HD1 would be forming more than 100 stars every single year. This is at least 10 times higher than what we expect for these galaxies.”

That’s when the team began suspecting that HD1 might not be forming normal, everyday stars. 

“The very first population of stars that formed in the universe were more massive, more luminous and hotter than modern stars,” Pacucci adds. “If we assume the stars produced in HD1 are these first, or Population III, stars, then its properties could be explained more easily. In fact, Population III stars are capable of producing more UV light than normal stars, which could clarify the extreme ultraviolet luminosity of HD1.” 

Newly-spotted most distant galaxy ever may contain a supermassive black hole about 100 million times the mass of our Sun.

A supermassive black hole, however, could also explain the extreme luminosity of HD1. As it gobbles down enormous amounts of gas, high energy photons may be emitted by the region around the black hole.

If that’s the case, it would be by far the earliest supermassive black hole known to humankind, observed much closer in time to the Big Bang compared to the current record-holder.

“HD1 would represent a giant baby in the delivery room of the early universe,” says Avi Loeb an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics and co-author on the MNRAS study. “It breaks the highest quasar redshift on record by almost a factor of two, a remarkable feat.”

HD1 was discovered after more than 1,200 hours of observing time with the Subaru Telescope, VISTA Telescope, UK Infrared Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope. 

“It was very hard work to find HD1 out of more than 700,000 objects,” says Yuichi Harikane, an astronomer at the University of Tokyo who discovered the galaxy. “HD1’s red color matched the expected characteristics of a galaxy 13.5 billion light-years away surprisingly well, giving me a little bit of goosebumps when I found it.”

The team then conducted follow-up observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to confirm the distance, which is 100 million light years further than GN-z11, the current record-holder for the furthest galaxy. 

Using the James Webb Space Telescope, the research team will soon once again observe HD1 to verify its distance from Earth. If current calculations prove correct, HD1 will be the most distant — and oldest — galaxy ever recorded.

The same observations will allow the team to dig deeper into HD1’s identity and confirm if one of their theories is correct. 

“Forming a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, a black hole in HD1 must have grown out of a massive seed at an unprecedented rate,” Loeb says. “Once again, nature appears to be more imaginative than we are.”

Image Credit: Getty

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