Hubble Spots Oldest Galaxy To Date

Nathan Smith

Contemporary science tells us that our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, and over these eons great changes have occurred in the cosmos.  It was recently that NASA received a more in-depth look at just what our infant universe looked like; the 20-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, thanks in part to its Ultra Deep-Field Infrared imager upgrade that it received in May 2009, was able to catch a glimpse of one of the universe’s “prototype” galaxies, which just so happens to be the oldest galaxy ever imaged in history.

For those expecting a breathtaking panoramic of the newborn universe in all its glory, they should keep holding their breath.  This newly discovered galaxy, at first glance, is simply a miserable, red blob, among a series of other just as miserable, Technicolor blobs.  On top of that, this newly discovered galaxy has been given the rather uninspired name UDFj-39546284.  Lastly, the term “galaxy” may be a bit generous for this little body.  NASA calls it a “mini-galaxy,” but “star cluster” might be more appropriate.

But it’s not the name, size or even the sight of this galaxy that is most astonishing to scientists; it’s the age of this red-blob galaxy.  This mini-galaxy was formed only 480 million years after the Big Bang — which might not seem like a short amount of time, but one must remember that millions of years are pretty insignificant when considered several billion years — missing most likely formed as a result of gas pooling in a sort of spatial depression of dark matter.  NASA’s image of UDFj-39546284, a result of roughly 100 hours of imaging over the summers of 2009 and 2010, shows the infant galaxy just about 100 to 200 million years into its life, meaning that this simple little blob has long since dissipated and disappeared into the universe as time went on.

NASA has stated that this image is a small look into a time in the universe’s life when great changes were occurring in the cosmos.

It was in the time of UDFj-39546284 that most stars formed and burned themselves out with relatively lighting-quick speed compared to today.  The stars that formed in this point of the universe’s life were on the blue side of the spectrum, meaning that they burned as much of their fuel as fast as possible, essentially throwing atomic temper tantrums for a short amount of time before finally collapsing under the weight of their own gravity and exploding into supernovae.  Today, however, after eons of what some scientists jokingly refer to as the universe’s “research and development” phase, stars like our own sun have become far more common in the universe, allowing enough time for planets like Earth to form and produce complex life.

Though UDFj-39546284 may seem to be an inconsequential discovery, it is in fact a milestone in getting to know our cosmic home.  And imagers like Hubble are only getting further and further into the universe, seeing just what life was like “back in the day.”  It is expected sometime in this new decade, with the assistance of state-of-the-art telescopes being put into orbit in the next five to ten years, that NASA and other space agencies will be able to view the universe right at the moment of its birth.  Astronomers and starry-eyed enthusiasts should keep a lookout for the newest images of the primeval universe that are sure to follow.