On March 3, 2016, astronomers at the Hubble Space Telescope announced that they have seen farther back in time than they ever have before. They said they peeked through a galaxy 13.4 billion light years away in a time when the universe was just past its infancy.
The finding disproves the theory of “cosmic distance record,” a point in time that scientists once though could not be seen with current technology.
Pascal Oesch, an astrophysicist and the lead author of the study said:
“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble.”
When the Hubble Telescope image of the galaxy known as GN-z11 is magnified, it appears as an unremarkable, fuzzy, dark red splotch. However, when Oesch and his colleagues measured a phenomenon known as redshift, they able to look back in time to when the galaxy was brilliantly blue and incredibly hot, bursting with brand new stars that formed at a frenetic rate.
Scientists can figure out how long light has been traveling to us through space by measuring the degree of redshift. Therefore, they can measure how long ago the thing that they’re looking at existed. Previously, the highest redshift number assigned to a galaxy was 8.68 — meaning it existed some 13.2 billion years in the past.
This means that the galaxy was around just 400 million years after the Big Bang — no time at all, in cosmic terms — to a period that is 97% of the way to the universe’s very beginnings.
The universe was still a toddler at that stage — hazy, cold and shrouded in a fog of hydrogen gas.
Oesch told BBC:
“Hubble has proven once again, even after almost 26 years in space, just how special it is.”
“When the telescope was launched we were investigating galaxies a little over half-way back in cosmic history. Now, we’re going 97 percent of the way back. It really is a tremendous achievement.”