National Geographic News
Photo showing the most distant galaxy discovered.

Astronomers have found a galaxy far, far away—13.1 billion light-years from Earth, to be exact.

Photograph by V. Tilvi (Texas A&M), S. Finkelstein (UT Austin), the CANDELS Team, and HST/NASA

Andrew Fazekas

National Geographic

Published October 23, 2013

Astronomers have found a galaxy 13.1 billion light-years from Earth, making it officially the most distant object ever detected.

A faint, infrared speck of light from this ancient galaxy, called z8_GND_5296, was spotted using the Hubble Space Telescope and one of the world's largest ground-based telescopes, a ten-meter telescope at Keck Observatory at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Light from this baby galaxy began its journey when the universe was about 700 million years old and just emerging from the cosmic mist left over from its birth, said Casey Papovich, one of the lead authors of the study and an astronomer at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The former record holder is a fellow youngster, an ultra-faint galaxy about 100 million light-years closer to Earth.

Past claims of galaxies at these extreme distances were mined from deep field images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. But many of these would-be candidates turned out to be much closer than previously thought, according to Papovich.

"Some of our candidates have turned out to be very cold stars—brown dwarfs—in our own galaxy," he explained.

Redshift Reveals

The only way to confirm a galaxy's true distance, however, is to do follow-up measurements analyzing the spectrum of light emitted. This can enable astronomers to determine a candidate's redshift—how far its light is shifted into the red part of the spectrum—and thereby its distance.

Redshift occurs because wavelengths of light stretch out as galaxies move away from observers on Earth. So the higher the redshift number, the more distant the object from Earth.

Papovich's team found this faint galaxy's redshift was 7.5, compared with the previous record holder's 7.2.

"Until you have a redshift, there is always some doubt about the exact nature of the galaxy," said Papovich.

"All the other objects out there with claimed 'most distant galaxy' in their titles are candidates selected using only imaging, and no spectroscopic confirmation like what we have done here."

The find, described in a study published this week in the journal Nature, is expected to help researchers better understand the so-called era of reionization, when newborn hot, massive stars and their galaxies transformed the opaque hydrogen fog—which filled the cosmos in the first billion years after the Big Bang—into the transparent intergalactic space we see today.

"The galaxies themselves [in this era of the universe] would be filled with the newly formed, massive stars, many of which could be a thousand times the mass of our own sun," Papovich explained.

"We have yet to identify any conclusive evidence that these 'first-generation' stars exist in even this distant galaxy."

How Far Back Can We Go?

Can we push the record back even further, closer to the Big Bang?

Richard Ellis, an astronomer not connected to the study, says it is definitely possible. But we do not yet have telescopes powerful enough to do the job.

"We have the capability, in principle, to push to redshifts of ten and beyond, corresponding to a time when the universe was only 350 million years old, or  only 3 percent of its present age," said Ellis, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The conundrum for researchers is that looking at larger distances means looking further back in time. That means galaxies become ever fainter as we push closer to the birth of the universe and the Big Bang.

"For most of the early galaxies being seen by Hubble, there's little hope of confirming their distances with spectroscopy until we get powerful new facilities such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope," said Ellis.

"Ultimately, to chart the universe in detail at these early times, we need the next-generation facilities."

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

86 comments
Rinaldo Ishak
Rinaldo Ishak

Many times I look at the sky in the night and wonder of everything above the sky, and where it ends, the mysteries somehow revealed bit by bit, thanks for all these research.

seyed hosseini
seyed hosseini

I congratulate these research workers to help us to know the universe & its creator. I also thank "National Geographic Center" which has published these  findings. Dr.S.A.Hosseini

seyed hosseini
seyed hosseini

I congratulate these research workers to help us to know the universe & its creator. I also  thank "National GeographicCenter" which has published these  findings.

Dr.S.A. Hosseini

Philip Bottwood
Philip Bottwood

I really can't take on board all the massive distances!!!

John de Salme
John de Salme

Fantastic! I wonder if our limited brains can cope with the knowledge that is out there?

Does it really matter?

Rod Betts
Rod Betts

Makes us mindful of our fragility 

Mihajlo Filipovic
Mihajlo Filipovic

I guess one day every singe one among us will laugh at the things we have been taught. While fascinating in their special ways, all that we can create is a theory, since the questions of the highest order still have not been answered, and most of those never will be.

In the meantime, this World of ours where everything we perceive exists, is torn apart by short-sighted people who belong to one group of believers or the other. Instead of adding resources and finding the mode which would be acceptable to everyone, those theories - beliefs are used to tear us apart as a race.

The Super-Hologram theory is the first one that offers explanations that curiously fit all theories together. It makes magic, science, religions and all imagination equally possible and interestingly co-existent.

Start from here: http://coyoteprime-runningcauseicantfly.blogspot.com/2011/03/are-we-livin-in-matrix-like.html to see more. It's as good a start as any.

Ancient literature (such as Veda) states that (approximately cited)" the whole of material Universe, known an unknown, is only one quart of the whole Creation" - and this sentence originated really a long time ago!

Does it not curiously resemble the relation between the general software and some singular program in execution? It sure does.

Thus, IMHO, the chances we have to detect the Origin by sensing the tiny pieces of Everything are about as meagre as those of a white mouse trying to comprehend the intentions of the old professor who put him in that maze he has to scamper through. :)

Susan Diamond
Susan Diamond

Wow!   What a teeny tiny spec we mortals be.

Thierry Lombry
Thierry Lombry

The farest  object ? Abell 1835 IR1916 shows a redshift  Z=10. It was discovered in 2004 with the VLT, and was already considered as the farest galaxy at  13.2 bln l.y.

Thomas Bradford
Thomas Bradford

As always the stories articles remain top notch in every format .

Thomas Bradford
Thomas Bradford

Top notch stories to read view & share with friends & associates.

Carolyn Cariello
Carolyn Cariello

This is so facinating, and I feel priveleged to be a witness.

Chitrabhanu Thekkedath
Chitrabhanu Thekkedath

The vastness of the universe is unimaginable. We are discovering new and new universe billions of "Light years away". We have reached a stage when man understands he is only a speck in this vast universe. Gone are the days of human was considered the ultimate end of creation, we are nothing but a branch of evolutionary tree. Another specie can over take us. We have always been claiming that "God created us in his image".  But it may turnout to be untrue. 

Maurice Duffill
Maurice Duffill

The further away a galaxy is, the longer it takes for the light to reach us, therefore the 'view' we have is of a YOUNGER galaxy - billions of years before its actual age.

A galaxy much nearer will appear OLDER than the distant example because the image takes less time to reach us and so we are viewing it closer to its actual age.

Consideration of these two conclusions appear to suggest a space/time warp which further confuses the appreciation of actuality.

Cletus Tafoya
Cletus Tafoya

It is truely amazing! All I can say is that God created the uninverse with his understanding alone! What a glorious feat! Thank you National Geographic

Esther Barnett
Esther Barnett

You said what kind of light made it possible to detect its age, but you neglected to state how we determine distance based on the light's color and speed. Something tells me that this galaxy will later turn out to be younger than we think.

Jess Damasco
Jess Damasco

As we develop more powerful telescopes that will see farther into the past, does this mean we will see less until there's nothing anymore to see? Assuming it will then be possible to peer into the time of the Big Bang, will it be visible? Will all of it be light? Will there be a gradual brightening as it emerges with every farther view? If we are we going to see much younger stuff, how will they look? From a child in eternal awe of God's creations, I crave for answers. Thank you.

Fanny Moreno
Fanny Moreno

I read the full article, but I didn't see the name of the galaxy, could you help me with that? Thank you very much.

Ralph Phillips
Ralph Phillips

The whole point of observing the earlier moments of the universe is to determine when exactly did it occur, and through observation (looking backwards through time/space) we can study the effects that lead to its expansion from a singularity to the massive amounts of energy and matter that formed from the cooling-down period, which began the formation of nebuli, and clusters of protostars that eventually formed into galaxies; further back towards the beginning we see things the more understood our own development of the Milky-Way becomes apparent through the redshift-spectra-analysis.   If we could see 700-800m light years from the point of origin, we could see the cloud nebulas, and radiation more narrowly, which is being more revealed through the more distant our observations.   Matter formed from the combining of energy and gravitational waves, and dark matter which was/is constantly present in over 90% of the universe separated from the matter and both exist and are always in entrophy. 

Jim Tolpin
Jim Tolpin

Wonder if anyone can help me and my kid out here with a question:  Assuming that the theory that the universe started from a singularity (the white end of a black hole perhaps) is correct (and I assume it is), then why aren't all the earliest galaxies that we are now discovering clustered into one small area of the sky instead of dispersed?  Basically the same question as the one asked below by William.

Marcel de Mare
Marcel de Mare

To learn more about galaxies and the universe in general, come pay us a visit at

the VSB observatory in Bussloo. Interesting lectures every Friday evening. And, if the wheather permits, you can glaze in space trough our telescope.

Johannes Niemand
Johannes Niemand

This is great and exciting. Thrills me, and also scares me mostly because of it's capaciousness. At the same time I love to learn and try to grasp new insights.

William Rippon
William Rippon

Can anyone explain in laymans terms how we can see this galaxy 13B light years away i.e. where it was 13b years ago, but if we look in exactly the opposite direction we will see something else 13B light years away. Does this not mean that a mere 700M years after the Big Bang the universe was already at least 26B light years across? How does this fit with nothing traveling faster than light?

G A
G A

Read this:

(Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of (Or: differences) the night and the daytime there are signs indeed for ones endowed with intellects)

 (Indeed the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind; but most of mankind do not know)

That's your all-mighty Lord's speech. Would you reflect upon it? 

Robert Fried
Robert Fried

The big bang may have released a very high intensity of Light as well as radiation so we may get lucky with that. Also it depends on the distance from us. Because if the light is not as far as it would take to get to us. Than we are out of luck for the light wave may have passed us by the time we come up with technology to see it or register it. Just some theorizing from me. I figure we have to be the number of light years away that the occurrence has been passed us or farther from the center of the big bang to see it. Also if we are farther then we have to wait for the exact year for light to hit us. May not be in our life time. So do we feel lucky? I hope so. 

Tad McCall
Tad McCall

Gig 'em--Texas A&M science in action!

Stuart Munien
Stuart Munien

Its amazing when you recognise how close we get everday to learning more and more about the Universe(especially the very origins of it).This is puzzle we are piecing together bit by bit 

Adrian Connelly
Adrian Connelly

interesting....very interesting!

Does anyone else wonder why religious & cultural differences seem so insignificant when compared to the immensity...the sheer vastness of the universe.

Would it really make a whit of difference (if it was even technologically possible) to race out there and plant a flag on some rock in this far away galaxy?


MARTIN B
MARTIN B

I’m overwhelm, the scope of intellect associated with the Nat’l Geo. is inspiring.

Borra Reddy
Borra Reddy

One thing is missing. Being 13.1 billion year-old means light emitted by the galaxy is travelling for that much time,but the galaxy is also receding all the time and so now it will be much farther than 13.1 billion light years away. May be 40 billion light years from us!

Paulo Afonso
Paulo Afonso

Incorrect - the most distant object ever found is GRB090423, at spectroscopic redshift z =8.2. This is the farthest galaxy, but not farthest object - the gamma ray burst 090423 is the record holder.

R. Kelley
R. Kelley

@Chitrabhanu Thekkedath Researching Hinduism, Buddhism, Edgar Cayce, and Jesus to name a few (which I am continuing to do) has it that "God created us in his image" had nothing to do with the physical body but the soul if the person reading believes in the soul at all.   

Rasin Ahmed
Rasin Ahmed

@Jim Tolpin One reason could be that the image we see now is a snapshot of the past. The massive distance means light took lot of time to travel to us and by now the actualy scenario is different. Like, the light takes 8.5 mins to travel from the sun. If anything happens in this 8.5 mins, we'd not be able to detect that visually and only after another 8.5 mins. Having said that space/astronomy are not my domains. Just trying to spectulate with my limited knowledge on this topic.

Michael Schrier
Michael Schrier

@William Rippon William, I, like most people, am totally fascinated by these facts and figures. I did read once that when the Big Bang happened it took just 1 nano second to expand to the size of our universe and was still accelerating. This way exceeds the speed of light, one day this will all be sorted out, unfortunately we will all be long gone when that happens

Rasin Ahmed
Rasin Ahmed

@William Rippon On a slightly different topic, there's an intersting fact on how scientists determine earth's atmosphere thousands of years from now. The ice layers forms over thousands of years and there are always air bubbles trapped inside these ice layers. So, the air bubbles from deeper layers of ice means that air from a much earlier time and serves as a reference of that time period. Analysis on the air bubbles determines the percentage of gases on air around that time. And the growth rate of ice layers tells us how long ago that was! I was fascinated how scientists determine the global warming scenario/current atmosphere and compare it to climate conditions that existed thousands of years ago.

Rasin Ahmed
Rasin Ahmed

@William Rippon The age of our universe is said to be 13.8 billion years. If light from this galaxy travelled around 13 billion years (where we are now) that leaves that it was "born" somewhere between 0 to 0.8 billion years. The imaging and spectroscopic analysis must have confirmed that the the time period (when the light began journey) was in the early 700 million years range.

George Richert
George Richert

@William Rippon I go along with that the universe still has a lot more Questions and answers, for me theory of the big bang is far from conclusive.

George Marshal  

GAVIN MARTENS
GAVIN MARTENS

@G A Cool Islamic scripture from Ghafir about the Creation. Muhammad Asad translated the second quote to end "yet most men do not understand [what this implies]."

Somewhat reflective of the apostle Paul's speech to Rome when he said:

"what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,"


Maybe the implication here is that the all-mighty Lord is amazingly creative, intelligent (so many aspects of physics all balanced together beautifully - something we haven't managed to simulate yet), intimate and powerful.

Andrew Fazekas
Andrew Fazekas

@Paulo Afonso  According to the astronomers I interviewed for this story, there have been many claims for objects at even greater distances like for GRBs. Apparently there were no clear signals to get distances for these GRBs and some claims were refuted by improved observations and others remain doubtful within the scientific community. As it stand now this galaxy has been verified  spectroscopically looking at the Lyman-alpha emission feature. 


This I think really reflects the difficult nature of the work astronomers have to tackle when dealing with objects at these great distances.  Amazing stuff for sure. 

Paulo Afonso
Paulo Afonso

Andrew:

I am an astronomer too - actually part of a team who studies GRBs systematically and also got data for GRB090423, which indeed also has a confirmed spectroscopic Lyman-alpha detection. There are no doubts about this particular GRB, as you can confirm with any other astronomers. For some other GRBs with indicative photometric redshift (but not spectroscopically confirmed) indeed your commentary would apply - meaning, we can not be sure for those other GRBs about their distance. Though only in one or two cases there are GRBs with indicative photometric redshift bigger than GRB090423. So, yes, GRB090423 is still the farthest away object in the Universe, confirmed beyond doubts with spectra - and I keep my suggestion for you to correct the article/info. above. Your comment also applies to the galaxy UDFy-38135539, that initially was know with a spectroscopic z = 8.55, making it the farther away galaxy and object in the Universe. Later observations of the same galaxy did not confirm the spectroscopic measurements. In this galaxy case though even the initial claim was based on noisy/weak spectral lines - the authors being open and honest about it, also providing their data for other astronomers to check at once and reproduce or not the results. So for UDFy-38135539, indeed the claim of farther away object in the Universe was retracted - but surely not for GRB090423. One thing about GRBs is that they are the biggest electromagnetic explosions in the Universe after the B. Bang itself - so normally they are extremely bright, releasing in some cases as much energy as our Sun in its entire life, just in tens of seconds or a couple of minutes. GRBs may not last too long, unlike light from galaxies - but they shine as bright as no other object, thus allowing for hunting the farthest away objects in the Universe. Cheers.

Paulo Afonso
Paulo Afonso

Douglas:

There is no centre of the Universe - since at sufficiently large scales all clusters of galaxies move away from each other, they "see" all the other galaxies moving away in the "Hubble flow", with the expansion of space-time between them. So in that sense we have instead multiple "centres of the Universe", or to be more precise of the Observable Universe. Thus in terms of where is this galaxy located - is sort of an irrelevant question. We use declination and right ascension coordinates to identify sky objects, much like latitude and longitude on geographic locations on Earth. Some sky objects are only visible for telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere of Earth, due to our planet's curvature. Typically we can only see half of the celestial sphere at a time...unless you are in orbit/space. 

Hope this helps.

Paulo Afonso
Paulo Afonso

Douglas:

There is no centre of the Universe - since at sufficiently large scales all clusters of galaxies move away from each other, they "see" all the other galaxies moving away in the "Hubble flow", with the expansion of space-time between them. So in that sense we have instead multiple "centres of the Universe", or to be more precise of the Observable Universe. Thus in terms of where is this galaxy located - is sort of an irrelevant question. We use declination and right ascension coordinates to identify sky objects, much like latitude and longitude on geographic locations on Earth. Some sky objects are only visible for telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere of Earth, due to our planet's curvature. Typically we can only see half of the celestial sphere at a time...unless you are in orbit/space. 

Hope this helps.

Douglas H.
Douglas H.

@Paulo Afonso  I have a question that never seems to be answered in articles about this galaxy. In what direction (relative to the center of the universe and to us) is that galaxy found?

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