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Scientists confirm galaxy far, far away

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By The Washington Post
Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 6:06 p.m.

Scientists have discovered the most distant galaxy ever confirmed, whose light took more than 13 billion years to reach Earth, providing a snapshot of the early universe. The faraway system resides in the night sky just above the handle of the Big Dipper.

One curious trait about the record-breaker is that it forms stars at an incredible rate, about 330 per year — more than 100 times faster than our Milky Way galaxy. This could be a trademark of the universe's early days, when hydrogen gas for star formation was much more plentiful.

“We wanted to figure out how galaxies evolve,” said Steven Finkelstein, lead author and University of Texas at Austin astronomer. “One way to do that is to push back deeper and deeper into the history of the universe.” The study was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

At first, the landmark discovery was a little bit of a letdown, the scientists said.

The team of astronomers used images from the Hubble Space Telescope to identify 43 possible faraway galaxies and then used state-of-the-art spectrographic equipment at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to confirm their distances. In the end, Finkelstein and his colleagues could only retrieve data from this lone galaxy.

With advances in instrumentation technology, astronomers continue to stretch their detection capabilities further outward from the Milky Way. Because light takes time to travel such long distances, remote objects allow them to peer back through time.

The light detected from this outlying galaxy — with the official catalog name z8-GND-5296 — left the galaxy 13.1 billion years ago. This gives us a glimpse of the universe as it was when it was only 700 million years old.

In other words, we're looking 95 percent of the way back to the Big Bang. To put that into human terms, that would be like an 80-year-old watching a video of himself on his fourth birthday.

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