NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope discovers the most distant star ever seen

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NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered the light of the most distant individual star never seen before.

The agency said the star existed within the first billion years after the universe was born in the Big Bang.

NASA said the previous single star record holder was spotted by the telescope in 2018. This star existed when the universe was about 4 billion years old, during the “redshift”.

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“Redshift” refers to the light from distant objects getting closer Earth that will be stretched or “shifted” to longer, redder wavelengths as the universe expands.

So distant that its light took 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, this star looks like the universe is redshifted 6.2 – or 7% of its current age.

“We almost didn’t believe it at first, it was so much farther than the previously most distant, highest redshift star,” Brian Welch, Johns Hopkins University astronomer and lead author of the paper Description of the discovery, said in a statement.

This detailed view highlights the position of the star Earendel along a ripple in spacetime that magnifies it and allows the star to be spotted at such a great distance – nearly 13 billion light-years. A star cluster reflected on either side of the magnification line is also highlighted.
(Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, Brian Welch (JHU), Dan Coe (STScI); Image Processing: NASA, ESA, Alyssa Pagan (STScI))

The discovery was made using data collected during Hubble’s RELICS (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey). program.

After examining the galaxy in detail, Welch found that one feature is an extremely magnified star called Earendel, or “morning star” in Old English.

“Earendel existed so long ago that it may not have had the same raw materials as the stars around us today,” Welch explained.

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“The study of Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with, but that led to all we know. It’s like we’ve read a really interesting book, but we’ve started the second chapter and now we’ll have a chance to see how it all started,” he said.

Earendel has at least 50 times the mass of Sun and a million times brighter. It is naturally magnified by galaxy cluster WHL0137-08.

It appears directly on or near a wave – or “caustic” – in the fabric of space, allowing for maximum magnification and illumination.

The caustic makes Earendel stand out, increasing its brightness by a factor of a thousand or more.

Astronomers expect it to remain greatly magnified for years to come, and it will be observed by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Scientists are currently unable to determine whether Earendel is a binary star, and its composition will be of great interest as it formed before the universe was filled with the heavy elements produced by successive generations of massive stars.

If further research reveals that Earendel consists only of primordial hydrogen and helium, it would be the first evidence of the legendary Population III stars: the very first stars to be born after the Big Bang.

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“With Webb, we might even see stars farther away than Earendel, which would be incredibly exciting,” Welch said. “We’re going back as far as we can. I would love to see Webb break Earendel’s course record.”

The smallest objects seen so far at such great distances are star clusters.

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