This painting by Kona artist Jon Lomberg shows what the most distant galaxy ever seen might look like. Blue and white areas are stars, pink areas are gas clouds, and yellow streaks are areas of light shining from inside the gas clouds.

Scopes open
cosmic curtain

Big Isle observatories confirm
the discovery of an ancient galaxy


Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2003

>> The Subaru observatory announced last year that it had discovered an object 12.8 billion light-years from Earth. A Page A1 article Sunday incorrectly reported the distance as 12.8 million light-years.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at

WAIMEA, Hawaii >> A cosmic magnifying lens has allowed astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to see the most distant galaxy ever discovered, identified by smudges of light from the edge of the visible universe.

The discovery was confirmed last year using the two Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea and was to be announced today at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, the Keck Observatory announced.

The discovery by a team of four astronomers headed by Jean-Paul Kneib of the California Institute of Technology reveals a galaxy just 750 million years after the creation of the universe in a "big bang."

The unnamed galaxy is so far away that light from it has been traveling toward Earth for 13 billion years.

Only about four objects of a roughly comparable distance are known, Kneib said. They include the discovery last year by the Subaru observatory on Mauna Kea of an object announced as 12.8 million light-years away.

Kneib's discovery was "kind of unexpected," he said. His team had been looking at objects closer to Earth when they realized that the gravity of a group of galaxies called Abell 2218 was acting as an enormous lens that focused distant light toward Earth, magnifying it 25 times.

Included in the light were three faint smudges that originated from a single ancient galaxy.

A painting of the galaxy by Kona artist Jon Lomberg shows a jumble of stars and gases 2,000 light-years across.

"We expect it to be quite disorganized," Kneib said.

In comparison, the Milky Way, about 100,000 light-years across, is an orderly spiral galaxy like many others near it.

The distant galaxy is about at the limits of what humans can currently hope to see.

Anything older falls into a period known as the Dark Ages, the Keck announcement said. The universe then was filled with hydrogen atoms linked to form molecules that soak up light. Although large, bright stars existed, the molecules grabbed light everywhere, Kneib said.

Suddenly, about the age of the newly discovered galaxy, the molecules got so hot they broke apart, losing their ability to sponge up light.

"All the universe starts to be transparent," Kneib said.

High-energy ultraviolet light led to the molecular breakup. The newly discovered galaxy originally beamed brightly with ultraviolet, the Keck statement said.

But as the universe expanded for 13 billion years, that early light was shifted to a lower, redder energy level. When Kneib's team spotted it, it had become infrared.


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