Hubble snaps image of a galactic ‘needle in a haystack’

12 Jan 2018

Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

By using nature to overclock the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA has spotted an embryonic galaxy that existed when the universe was just 500m years old.

Despite the power of both NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, there is only so much that technology can do to see into the distant universe.

However, using the power of nature to overclock their ability to see further than should be possible, we have now been able to create the clearest image of one of the furthest galaxies yet to be seen by humans.

This overclocking was achieved using a technique called gravitational lensing, which has come into its own in recent years thanks to the discovery and confirmation of gravitational waves in 2016.

Now knowing that the warping of space by the gravity of a massive foreground object can brighten and distort the images of far more distant background objects, astronomers are able to give space telescopes an extra zoom lens effect to discover amplified images of distant galaxies.

With this boost, a team of NASA scientists has revealed an image of an embryonic galaxy dubbed SPT0615-JD, which existed when the universe was just 500m years old.

While a few other primitive galaxies around this age have been spotted before, they had only appeared as a tiny red dot because they were simply too far away to observe.

Hubble distant galaxy

The embryonic galaxy, named SPT0615-JD, existed when the universe was just 500m years old. Image: NASA, ESA and B Salmon (STScI)

‘Oh, wow! I think we’re on to something!’

In this discovery, gravitational lensing was able to create a bigger, smeared image of an arc, which was spotted by Hubble’s Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey (RELICS) and companion S-RELICS Spitzer programme.

The research team had originally spotted one particular galaxy cluster dubbed SPT-CL J0615-5746, leading to this latest discovery. At the time, the study’s lead author Brett Salmon said: “Oh, wow! I think we’re on to something!”

Even with this natural boosting effect, this discovery is at the limit of what Hubble can see but, when NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope is operational, we will be able to see even further again.

“This galaxy is an exciting target for science with the Webb telescope as it offers the unique opportunity for resolving stellar populations in the very early universe,” Salmon said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic