Hubble Telescope Sees a Galaxy 13.4 Billion Years in the Past, Breaking Distance Record

Think of it as a galactic baby picture.

Human beings are no closer to time travel than we were in the idyllic days of The Jetsons, but NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t need to go anywhere to see into the past. According to the space agency’s website, the Hubble team just got a glimpse of a galaxy as it looked 13.4 billion years ago, shattering the previous record for oldest galaxy ever observed. (The prior record-holder was a mere 13.2 billion years old.) The images of the galaxy, known as GN-z11, show it just 400 million years after the big bang. “We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble,” Pascal Oesch, one of the team of scientists working with Hubble, told NASA. “We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age.” 

Scientists were able to locate GN-z11, which is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way, in the first place because of its brightness — it’s forming new stars so quickly that it lets off enough light to be seen from Earth. GN-z11’s discovery is exciting not only because it’s really, really cool, but also because it bodes well for the James Webb Space Telescope, a much more powerful telescope that will launch in 2018. If Hubble can see galaxies 13.4 billion years away, Webb might be able to see galaxies reaching back to their initial formation during the big bang.

NASA, ESA, B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz), A. Feild (STScI)