Hunting for faraway galaxies that existed long, long ago is like a fishing trip for astronomers. So far only the "big fish" have been found, bright galaxies that existed just a few hundred million years after the big bang. Now, using the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers have caught a "smaller fish," a very compact and faint early galaxy that was forming 400 million years after the big bang, which happened 13.8 billion years ago.
As there are many smaller fish than big fish in the sea, the new finding is evidence for an underlying population of dim galaxies that must have been common in the early universe. Hubble's upcoming successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, should be able to survey this population. But for now, Hubble can do some pioneering work by exploiting a "zoom lens" in space that captures a galaxy that would otherwise not be detectible. The phenomenon is called gravitational lensing, where the intense gravity of a cluster of galaxies magnifies the light of fainter background sources. Astronomers needed the infrared sensitivity of both the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes to measure the galaxy's great distance through its color, which is affected by the expanding universe.
Astronomers harnessing the combined power of NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have found the faintest object ever seen in the early universe. It existed about 400 million years after the big bang, 13.8 billion years ago.
The team has nicknamed the object Tayna, which means "first-born" in Aymara, a language spoken in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America.
Though Hubble and Spitzer have detected other galaxies that are record-breakers for distance, this object represents a smaller, fainter class of newly forming galaxies that until now have largely evaded detection. These very dim objects may be more representative of the early universe, and offer new insight on the formation and evolution of the first galaxies.
"Thanks to this detection, the team has been able to study for the first time the properties of extremely faint objects formed not long after the big bang," said lead author Leopoldo Infante, an astronomer at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile). The remote object is part of a discovery of 22 young galaxies at ancient times located nearly at the observable horizon of the universe. This research is a substantial increase in the number of known very distant galaxies.
The results are published in the Dec. 3 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
The new object is comparable in size to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a diminutive satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. It is rapidly making stars at a rate ten times faster than the LMC. The object might be the growing core of what will likely evolve into a full-sized galaxy.
The small and faint galaxy was only seen thanks to a natural "magnifying glass" in space. As part of its Frontier Fields program, Hubble observed a massive cluster of galaxies, MACS J0416.1-2403, located roughly 4 billion light-years away and weighing as much as a million billion suns. This giant cluster acts as a powerful natural lens by bending and magnifying the light of far-more-distant objects behind it. Like a zoom lens on a camera, the cluster's gravity boosts the light of the distant protogalaxy to make it look 20 times brighter than normal. The phenomenon is called gravitational lensing and was proposed by Albert Einstein as part of his General Theory of Relativity.
Its distance was estimated by building a color profile from combined Hubble and Spitzer observations. The expansion of the universe causes the light from distant galaxies to be stretched or reddened with increasing distance. Though many of the galaxy's new stars are intrinsically blue-white, their light has been shifted into infrared wavelengths that are measurable by Hubble and Spitzer. Absorption by intervening, cool, intergalactic hydrogen also makes the galaxies look redder.
This finding suggests that the very early universe will be rich in galaxy targets for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to uncover. Astronomers expect that Webb will allow us to see the embryonic stages of galaxy birth shortly after the big bang.
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Santiago, Chile