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NASA Telescopes Help Discover Surprisingly Young Galaxy

April 12, 2011

Trent Perrotto 
Headquarters, Washington 

Whitney Clavin 
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

Ray Villard 
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. 

Larry O'Hanlon 
W.M. Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii 

RELEASE: 11-109


WASHINGTON -- Astronomers have uncovered one of the youngest galaxies 
in the distant universe, with stars that formed 13.5 billion years 
ago, a mere 200 million years after the big bang. The finding 
addresses questions about when the first galaxies arose, and how the 
early universe evolved. 

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope was the first to spot the newfound 
galaxy. Detailed observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna 
Kea in Hawaii revealed the observed light dates to when the universe 
was only 950 million years old; the universe formed about 13.7 
billion years ago. 

Infrared data from both Hubble and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope 
revealed the galaxy's stars are quite mature, having formed when the 
universe was just a toddler at 200 million years old. 

"This challenges theories of how soon galaxies formed in the first 
years of the universe," said Johan Richard of the Centre de Recherche 
Astronomique de Lyon, Université Lyon 1 in France, lead author of a 
new study accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the 
Royal Astronomical Society. "It could even help solve the mystery of 
how the hydrogen fog that filled the early universe was cleared." 

This galaxy is not the most distant ever observed, but it is one of 
the youngest to be observed with such clarity. Normally, galaxies 
like this one are extremely faint and difficult to study, but, in 
this case, nature has provided the astronomers with a cosmic 
magnifying glass. The galaxy's image is being magnified by the 
gravity of a massive cluster of galaxies parked in front of it, 
making it appear 11 times brighter. This phenomenon is called 
gravitational lensing. 

"Without this big lens in space, we could not study galaxies this 
faint with currently available observing facilities," said co-author 
Eiichi Egami of the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Thanks to 
nature, we have this great opportunity to see our universe as it was 
eons ago." 

The findings may help explain how the early universe became 
"reionized." At some point in our universe's early history, it 
transitioned from the so-called dark ages to a period of light, as 
the first stars and galaxies began to ignite. This starlight ionized 
neutral hydrogen atoms floating around in space, giving them a 
charge. Ultraviolet light could then travel unimpeded through what 
had been an obscuring fog. 

The discovery of a galaxy possessing stars that formed only 200 
million years after the big bang helps astronomers probe this cosmic 
reionization epoch. When this galaxy was developing, its hot, young 
stars would have ionized vast amounts of the neutral hydrogen gas in 
intergalactic space. A population of similar galaxies probably also 
contributed to this reionization, but they are too faint to see 
without the magnifying effects of gravitational lensing. 

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch later 
this decade, will be able to see these faint galaxies lacking 
magnification. A successor to Hubble and Spitzer, JWST will see 
infrared light from the missing population of early galaxies. As a 
result, the mission will reveal some of our universe's best-kept 

"Seeing a galaxy as it appeared near the beginning of the universe is 
an awe-inspiring feat enabled by innovative technology and the 
fortuitous effect of gravitational lensing," said Jon Morse, NASA's 
Astrophysics Division director at the agency's headquarters in 

"Observations like this open a window across space and time, but more 
importantly, they inspire future work to one day peer at the stars 
that lit up the universe following the big bang." 

For more information about Spitzer and Hubble, visit: 





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