Astronomers Have Officially Broken The “Cosmic Distance Record”

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Astronomical history has been made this month (by which I mean a breakthrough in the realm of astronomy, not a really big moment) as a team of astronomer’s using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have broken the “cosmic distance record,” documenting the farthest galaxy mankind has ever been able to measure. This represents major astronomy news and represents a significant discovery in the study of astronomy.

The new galaxy, dubbed GN-z11, was reached using the Hubble telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 and  clocks in at a redshift of 11.1. In contrast, the previous galaxy to be the furthest away while still being visible had a redshift of 8.68.

Redshift, for those who are unaware, is the measurement of distance used by astronomers which is based on the concept of universal expansion. Since objects that are extremely far from us seem to be going out into the universe even further away, the light that does reach such far-off subjects is stretched to red wavelengths, which are longer. Thus, the more higher the redshift score, the further away the object (in this case, galaxy) is.


And that’s where things get quite interesting, a little confusing, and a bit trippy. Since a galaxy like GN-z11 is so far away, and the light for us to even see it is already obscenely old, the galaxy itself (as we’re seeing it) is technically in the past.

With that in mind, NASA’s team of astronomers, who hail from the Space Telescope Science Institute along with Yale and the University of California, have determined GN-z11 to be 13.4 billion years in the past.

Being so far into the universe’s past, GN-z11 is a galaxy that’s quite young, and formed not longer after the Big Bang. This has given astronomers the chance to study a galaxy far different from our own, while observing celestial behaviour at a time when the universe was in its infancy. According to Pascal Oesch of Yale University, principal investigator for the project, our view of GN-z11 relates to “a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age.”

In relation to our own galaxy, known as the Milky Way, GN-z11 is much smaller (25 times smaller, to be exact) and carries only 1% of the Milky Way’s total mass of stars.  But being such a young galaxy, GN-z11 is expanding at an exponential rate, a full 20x faster than the Milky Way currently foes.

A major breakthrough in the study of astronomy, the discovery of GN-z11 only points towards more records to break. As the James Webb Space Telescope, capable of reaching farther distances than the Hubble, readies to launch in 2018, even more far-off galaxies will soon come into view.

To take a look at GN-z11, check out the video released by NASA here and for more information, head to NASA’s announcement here.

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