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Hubble deep field
NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team
A look into the past.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS

Astronomers just discovered the oldest galaxy on record

By Adam Epstein

Usually, if someone says you look younger than you are, it’s a compliment. How about 130 times younger, though? Astronomers discovered a galaxy, called EGS-zs8-1, that was birthed 13.1 billion years ago—less than a billion years into the universe’s existence. It’s the oldest and most distant galaxy ever discovered.

So distant, in fact, that it appears to us as if it were a measly 100 million years old. The discovery has allowed scientists to glimpse the universe in its nascent state, when it was just 5% of its current age.

“Every confirmation adds another piece to the puzzle of how the first generations of galaxies formed in the early universe,” said Pieter van Dokkum, one of the study’s authors, in a NASA press release. “Only the most sensitive telescopes are powerful enough to reach to these large distances.”

NASA oldest galaxy
NASA/ESA
That blue blotch is very, very old.

The discovery, published in the Astrophysical Journal by scientists at Yale and the University of California, Santa Cruz, was made using data compiled by NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The astronomers also used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure the galaxy’s redshift.

Any time you look at a star in the sky, you’re looking at an older version of it. Polaris, for instance, is about 323 light-years from Earth, meaning you’re seeing the star as it existed 323 years ago. That might seem like a long time, but it’s infinitesimal by space standards. When astronomers see galaxy EGS-zs8-1, they’re really looking into the past. Further into the past than any galaxy previously observed.

While the light from EGS-zs8-1 may take 13 billion years to reach us, it’s actually much farther away than that. The universe is not only expanding, but also accelerating. At this point, EGS-zs8-1 is probably close to 30 billion light-years away.

NASA’s James Webb telescope, launching in 2018, should be able to provide much greater detail about EGS-zs8-1.