Galaxy spotted near edge of universe
(CNN) -- The new titleholder of most distant known object -- a galaxy -- has pushed our celestial view much closer to the edge of the cosmos, a team of international scientists announced.
The galaxy, which could be more than 14 billion light-years away, offers the earliest glimpse into the universe when galaxies and stars formed.
"Scaling the age of the universe to a person's lifetime, we're showing you baby pictures," said lead astronomer Esther Hu of the University of Hawaii.
"The last galaxy snapshot showed a toddler just past his fourth birthday. This one is three-and-a-half," she said.
Requiring billions of years to travel to Earth, the light from the galaxy represents a sample of the universe when it was about 750 million years old, about 50 million years earlier than that from the second most distant known object.
The universe began some 14 billion to 16 billion years ago with the Big Bang, according to the most commonly accepted cosmological model.
The heavens expanded and cooled for 500 million years or so. Then during the next 500 million years, the so-called Dark Ages, the cold gas clumped into galaxies. The dark epoch ended when the galaxies burst into light.
At least, that is what the conventional theory holds about the early evolution of the universe. The new object has forced astronomers to revamp their ideas.
"This galaxy is forming stars at a time speculated to be in the Dark Ages of the universe, when galaxies begin to turn on," Hu said.
The previous record-holder is in a rare class of objects known as quasars, extremely bright galactic cores that could be fueled by black holes.
To find the much fainter galaxy, the scientists relied on a quirky search method, using a gravitational lens in space.
The gravity of a dense bunch of galaxies about 6 million light-years away, known as the Abell 370 cluster field, bent and focused the light of the much more distant galaxy, acting as a de-facto magnifying glass.
The team's work will appear in the April 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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