A team of researchers devoted to finding the earliest objects in the universe have reported the detection of the oldest and furthest galaxy ever found. Called EGS8p7, this galaxy is only a little younger than our 13.8 year old universe.
A team of Caltech researchers that has spent years searching for the earliest objects in the universe now reports the detection of what may be the most distant galaxy ever found. In an article published August 28, 2015 in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Adi Zitrin, a NASA Hubble postdoctoral scholar in astronomy, and Richard Ellis—who recently retired after 15 years on the Caltech faculty and is now a professor of astrophysics at University College, London—describe evidence for a galaxy called EGS8p7 that is more than 13.2 billion years old. The universe itself is about 13.8 billion years old.
Earlier this year, EGS8p7 had been identified as a candidate for further investigation based on data gathered by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Using the multi-object spectrometer for infrared exploration (MOSFIRE) at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the researchers performed a spectrographic analysis of the galaxy to determine its redshift. Redshift results from the Doppler effect, the same phenomenon that causes the siren on a fire truck to drop in pitch as the truck passes. With celestial objects, however, it is light that is being “stretched” rather than sound; instead of an audible drop in tone, there is a shift from the actual color to redder wavelengths.
Redshift is traditionally used to measure distance to galaxies, but is difficult to determine when looking at the universe‘s most distant—and thus earliest—objects. Immediately after the Big Bang, the universe was a soup of charged particles—electrons and protons—and light (photons). Because these photons were scattered by free electrons, the early universe could not transmit light. By 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough for free electrons and protons to combine into neutral hydrogen atoms that filled the universe, allowing light to travel through the cosmos. Then, when the universe was just a half-billion to a billion years old, the first galaxies turned on and reionized the neutral gas. The universe remains ionized today.