PASADENA, California--The farthest known object in the universe may have been discovered by a team of astrophysicists using the Keck and Hubble telescopes. The object, a galaxy behind the Abell 2218 cluster, may be so far from Earth that its light would have left when the universe was just 750 million years old.
The discovery demonstrates again that the technique known as gravitational lensing is a powerful tool for better understanding the origin of the universe. Via further applications of this remarkable technique, astrophysicists may be able to better understand the mystery of how the so-called "Dark Ages" came to an end.
According to California Institute of Technology astronomer Jean-Paul Kneib, who is the lead author reporting the discovery in a forthcoming article in the Astrophysical Journal, the galaxy is most likely the first detected close to a redshift of 7.0, meaning that it is rushing away from Earth at an extremely high speed due to the expansion of the universe. The distance is so great that the galaxy's ultraviolet light has been stretched to the point of being observed at infrared wavelengths.
The team first detected the new galaxy in a long exposure of the Abell 2218 cluster taken with the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Analysis of a sequence of Hubble images indicate a redshift of at least 6.6, but additional work with the Keck Observatory's 10-meter telescopes suggests that the astronomers have found an object whose redshift is close to 7.0.
Redshift is a measure of the factor by which the wavelength of light is stretched by the expansion of the universe. The greater the shift, the more distant the object and the earlier it is being seen in cosmic history.
"As we were searching for distant galaxies magnified by Abell 2218, we detected a pair of strikingly similar images whose arrangement and color indicated a very distant object," said Kneib. "The existence of two images of the same object indicated that the phenomenon of gravitational lensing was at work."
The key to the new discovery is the effect the Abell 2218 cluster's gigantic mass has on light passing by it. As a consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity, light is bent and can be focused in a predictable way due to the warpage of space-time near massive objects. In this case the phenomenon actually magnifies and produces multiple images of the same source. The new source in Abell 2218 is magnified by a factor of 25.
The role of gravitational lensing as a useful phenomenon in cosmology was first pointed out by the Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1937, who even suggested it could be used to discover distant galaxies that would otherwise be too faint to be seen.
"The galaxy we have discovered is extremely faint, and verifying its distance has been an extraordinarily challenging adventure," Kneib added. "Without the magnification of 25 afforded by the foreground cluster, this early object could simply not have been identified or studied in any detail with presently available telescopes. Indeed, even with aid of the cosmic lens, our study has only been possible by pushing our current observatories to the limits of their capabilities."
Using the unique combination of the high resolution of Hubble and the magnification of the cosmic lens, the researchers estimate that the galaxy is small--perhaps measuring only 2,000 light-years across—but forming stars at an extremely high rate.
An intriguing property of the new galaxy is the apparent lack of the typically bright hydrogen emission seen in many distant objects. Also, its intense ultraviolet signal is much stronger than that seen in later star-forming galaxies, suggesting that the galaxy may be composed primarily of massive stars.
"The unusual properties of this distant source are very tantalizing because, if verified by further study, they could represent those expected for young stellar systems that ended the dark ages," said Richard Ellis, Steele Family Professor of Astronomy, and a coauthor of the article.
The term "Dark Ages" was coined by the British astronomer Sir Martin Rees to signify the period in cosmic history when hydrogen atoms first formed but stars had not yet had the opportunity to condense and ignite. Nobody is quite clear how long this phase lasted, and the detailed study of the cosmic sources that brought this period to an end is a major goal of modern cosmology.
The team plans to continue the search for additional extremely distant galaxies by looking through other cosmic lenses in the sky.
"Estimating the abundance and characteristic properties of sources at early times is particularly important in understanding how the Dark Ages came to an end," said Mike Santos, a former Caltech graduate student involved in the discovery and now a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England. "We are eager to learn more by finding further examples, although it will no doubt be challenging."
The Caltech team reporting on the discovery consists of Kneib, Ellis, Santos, and Johan Richard. Kneib and Richard are also affiliated with the Observatoire Midi-Pyrenees of Toulouse, France. Santos is also at the Institute of Astronomy, in Cambridge.
The research was funded in part by NASA.
The W. M. Keck Observatory is managed by the California Association for Research in Astronomy, a scientific partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and NASA. For more information, visit the observatory online at www.keckobservatory.org.