This is one of those stories that’s hard to wrap your head around. But let’s try because this stuff is so amazing:
Thanks to the Hubble Telescope and some lucky stars, astronomers actually have been able to see the most distant star ever seen by man or woman. Repeat, Ever.
“For the first time ever,” said co-author Alex Filippenko of the University of California at Berkeley, “we’re seeing an individual normal star — not a supernova, not a gamma-ray burst, but a single, stable star.”
This newly-seen star is about nine billion light years from Earth. That’s far, very far, much farther than ever seen before.
Reminder: Light is the fastest thing ever. It moves at 186,000 miles per second. A light year is the distance light can travel in one Earth year. You know the Sun, of course, and how far away that is, right? Well, the Sun is actually only eight light minutes and 20 seconds away.
Did we mention this newly-seen star is nine billion light years away?
In a light year a beam of light travels 5,900,000,000,000 miles — 5.9 trillion miles.
That’s in one single solitary light year. This star is 9,000,000,000 of them away.
That means that the light recently captured by Hubble, Filippenko, Patrick Kelly and their team of stargazers left that distant star 4.4 billion years before our Sun formed and about 4.5 billion years before Earth took shape. That’s older even than Joe Biden.
It also means, in effect, that thanks to that ancient traveling light capsule, we have now seen farther back in time than ever before. With the advances of even better instruments like the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope under construction for 2020 launch, scientists hope to see even farther back for hints about the mysterious origin of the universe.
According to Kelly, the study’s lead author of the University of Minnesota, “This star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study.”
They were able to pull this off because of Hubble and a rare coincidence. See the photo top right. The newly-seen star, dubbed Icarus for short or MACS J1149 Lensed Star 1 for long, was invisible in 2011.
But five years later (bottom right photo) a huge star cluster was moving in between Earth and the distant star.
It’s called gravitational lensing. The presence of massive clusters of galaxies actually bends and magnifies light passing through, such as the dim light from Icarus far on the other side. Magnified about 2,000 times, this time Hubble was able to spot it.
The formal peer-reviewed study was just published in Nature Astronomy.