NASA/ESA/P. Oesch (Yale)

Astronomers spot galaxy born near the birth of the universe

Thoroughly smashing a distance record set just last year, astronomers have discovered a galaxy that lies 13.4 billion light-years from Earth—and thus shone forth when the universe was less than 3% of its current age of 13.8 billion years. The surprisingly bright group of stars, most of which were 100 million years old or less when they emitted the light now reaching Earth, has a radius only 4% that of the Milky Way, the researchers report online today and in a forthcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal. The young galaxy (pink blob in inset, above), dubbed GN-z11, lies within the constellation Ursa Major and weighs in at about 1 billion solar masses (impressive, yes, but only about 1% the size of today’s Milky Way). Although small, GN-z11 is rapidly growing (or was at the time): It’s forming stars at a rate about 20 times greater than the Milky Way does today. With the current data, astronomers can’t really tell much about the individual stars in the galaxy, but such stars are generally much more massive than our sun. The new distance record, which beat the old record by about 300 million light-years, will likely stand until the James Webb Space Telescope—a 6.5-meter-across infrared telescope specifically designed to peer into the deepest recesses of the universe, among other tasks—is launched in 2018.