Scientists Believe This Is the Oldest Object We Have Ever Seen

A new survey from Hubble has found seven galaxies that formed not long after the Big Bang (in the scheme of things).

713525main_hs-2012-48a-orig_full-singlegalaxy.jpg

NASA

It may not look like much, but that little spot of brightness is a picture of what may be the oldest light ever captured by a human instrument, at more than 13.3 billion years old.

That object -- which goes by UDFj-39546284 -- is one of the seven oldest scientists have identified in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, the deepest portrait of our universe ever made. The light we are seeing from them originated 380 million to 600 million years after the Big Bang, which cosmologists estimate happened 13.7 billion years ago.

The entire survey shows thousands of galaxies from a small patch of the southern sky that the Hubble Space Telescope has repeatedly examined for clues of the earliest stars. In the version of the survey below, the seven early objects are highlighted in color-coded diamonds which correspond with different degrees of redshift, or the warping of light as it travels across the universe. Scientists use the extent of the redshift to calculate how old the light is.

713525main_hs-2012-48a-orig_full.jpg

NASA

In this video, released by NASA earlier this fall for another survey of the same region, you can get a sense of where these galaxies are and how far NASA has been able to zoom in in order to provide such a detailed view.

As beautiful as the swirling spiral galaxies of the survey are, it's the tiny red dots of ancient light that capture scientists' hearts. As Massimo Stiavelli of the Space Telescope Science Institute explained to me and Ross Andersen when we visited there earlier this year, "I only care about the red ones. Everything else is foreground."

But for scientists like Stiavelli, hoping to see light from the very first stars ever, Hubble's power falls short. They are waiting for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in half a decade with a mirror nearly three times the size of Hubble's and more sensitive infrared detection. Then, who knows what we'll see? How many of these ancient objects -- and older -- will there be? "Our knowledge of this deep core of the universe," Stiavelli told us with great anticipation, "is about to get extremely detailed."

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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