Next time you complain about ageing reruns on TV, spare a thought for astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope. They suspect they’ve just seen something from 13.2 billion years ago.
NASA has reported the sighting of what appears as a tiny dim object, but is actually a galaxy of blue stars about one-hundredth the size of the Milky Way. Being 13.2 billion light years away, that means that the picture now being seen existed just 480 million years after the start of the universe. (And that is one of the few times you’ll see the phrase “just 480 million years.”)
Although Hubble can’t distinguish individual stars in the galaxy, its shape, which lacks the spirals we are familiar with, suggests that at the point in time now visible it was relatively young, perhaps 100-200 million years old.
The most interesting element of the discovery is that it suggests the pace at which new stars were created in the early years of the universe may have been much faster than previously believed. NASA now estimates that the total number grew tenfold in the period between 480 million and 650 million years after the big bang.
And yes, while there’s a lot of number crunching going on, don’t think the astronomers are unemotional folks. Rychard Bouwens, a Dutch astronomer who led the team that made the discovery, told the Washington Post that “The idea that you can detect something from the beginning of cosmic time by looking at a patch of sky for 87 hours is just wild… I’m kind of wowed by it myself.”