For thinking about the enormity of the canvas of potential suns and exoplanets, I find images like this and what they tell us to be an awkward combination of fascinating and daunting.
This is an image that, using the combined capabilities of NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, shows what is being described as the faintest object, and one of very oldest, ever seen in the early universe. It is a small, low mass, low luminosity and low size proto-galaxy as it existed some 13.4 billion years ago, about 4oo million years after the big bang.
The team has nicknamed the object Tayna, which means “first-born” in Aymara, a language spoken in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America.
Though Hubble and Spitzer have detected other galaxies that appear to be slightly further away, and thus older, Tayna represents a smaller, fainter class of newly forming galaxies that until now have largely evaded detection. These very dim bodies may offer new insight into the formation and evolution of the first galaxies — the “lighting of the universe” that occurred after several hundred million years of darkness following the big bang and its subsequent explosion of energy.
Detecting and trying to understand these earliest galaxies is somewhat like the drive of paleo-anthropologists to find older and older fossil examples of early man. Each older specimen provides insight into the evolutionary process that created us, just as each discovery of an older, or less developed, early galaxy helps tease out some of the hows and whys of the formation of the universe.
Leopoldo Infante, an astronomer at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, is the lead author of last week’s Astrophysical Journal article on the faintest early galaxy. He said there is good reason to conclude there were many more of these earliest proto-galaxies than the larger ones at the time, and that they were key in the “reionization” of the universe — the process through which the universe’s early “dark ages” were gradually ended by the formation of more and more luminous stars and galaxies..
But the process of detecting these very early proto-galaxies is only beginning, he said, and will pick up real speed only when the NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to be launched in 2018) is up and operating. The Webb will be able to see considerably further back in time than the Hubble or Spitzer.
Estimates of how many galaxies might exist in the universe are in flux, with recent studies producing results ranging from 100 to 225 billion. On average a galaxy will have some 100 billion stars, giving the universe a low-end estimate of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.
When it comes to planets, a consensus of sorts has formed around the conclusion that in the Milky Way, and perhaps elsewhere, there is on average at least one planet per star. So assuming that the planetary dynamics of our galaxy are similar to those of others, that’s an awful lot of potential exoplanets.
All this has significant implications for the field of exoplanet research.
“We know that basically, planets form at about the same time as their stars from all the leftover dust and gas kicked up,” said Joel Green, Project Scientist at Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach (STScI.) The Institute operates the science for the Hubble Space Telescope as an international observatory.
“The earliest planets may have been very different kinds of planets because there was not as much metallicity (heavier elements) in those stars. But as soon as you have stars, you have planets.”
He said that in theory, that means that when the very earliest stars formed — during a time when the universe was essentially dark — planets were formed too. “They don’t need a universe of light to form; they need one star.”
The most ancient exoplanet detected so far (PSR B1620-26 b) has had a rather unusual history, first born 12.7 billion years ago outside of a “globular cluster” of stars (a comparatively older, compact group of up to a million old stars, held together by mutual gravitation), it then migrated closer to the cluster and into a rough astrophysical neighborhood. As viewed today, it orbits a pair of burned-out stars in the crowded core of a globular star cluster. It was first identified as a possible planet in 1992 — before the detection of 51 Pegasi b — but it took more than a decade to confirm that it is.
The oldest known exoplanet solar system is Kepler -444, formed 11.2 billion years ago in the Milky Way, itself 13.2 billion years old. Located in the constellation Lyra 116 light-years away, it hosts five rocky planets, all orbiting close to their sun.
The discovery of a solar system with rocky planets of this age (more than twice the age of our solar system’s rocky planet quartet), opens the door to the prospect of an early universe with many more rocky planets than once thought. That means there could be vast numbers of very ancient Earth-like planets out there.
Returning to the faintest protogalaxy, it is described as being comparable in size to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a very small satellite galaxy of our Milky Way seen in the southern hemisphere. Tayna is rapidly making stars at a rate ten times faster than the LMC, and is likely the growing core of what will evolve into a full-sized galaxy.
This faintest ancient galactic find is part of a discovery of 22 young galaxies at ancient times located nearly at the observable horizon of the universe, research that substantially increases in the number of known very distant galaxies.
“The big unanswered question is how and when did the stars and galaxies turn on to end those Dark Ages,” said Green. “There was a point when they started popping like popcorn. With Hubble we can go back only so far and can’t see anymore, but the James Webb can go significantly further and see back to the Dark Ages.”
Ironically, Infante and his team were able to find the faintest distant galaxy so far without having it be the hardest to see. That’s because they were able to use a technique of observing first proposed by Albert Einstein. As described on the HubbleSite:
The small and faint galaxy was only seen thanks to a natural “magnifying glass” in space. As part of its Frontier Fields program, Hubble observed a massive cluster of galaxies, MACS J0416.1-2403, located roughly 4 billion light-years away and weighing as much as a million billion suns. This giant cluster acts as a powerful natural lens by bending and magnifying the light of far-more-distant objects behind it. Like a zoom lens on a camera, the cluster’s gravity boosts the light of the distant protogalaxy to make it look 20 times brighter than normal. The phenomenon is called gravitational lensing and was proposed by Einstein as part of his General Theory of Relativity.
While gravitational lensing uses a galaxy cluster as its magnifying glass, “micro-lensing” takes advantage of the same physics but uses a single star in our galaxy as the lens. That technique is the only known method capable of discovering planets at truly great distances from the Earth. Radial velocity searches look for planets in our immediate galactic neighborhood, up to 100 light years from Earth, transit photometry can potentially detect planets at a distance of hundreds of light-years, but only micro-lensing can find planets orbiting stars near the center of the galaxy, thousands of light-years away.
And in the spirit of the wonder that microlensing tends to engender, let me leave you with another of those defining astronomical images that are impossible to ignore or forget.
This is the third version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, first assembled from 2003-2004 images, upgraded to the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) image in 2012 and then enhanced further in 2014 and returned to the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field name. Both the XDF and the 2014 version capture a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. That initial effort, which looked back in time approximately 13 billion years, picked up many unintentionally microlensed galaxies.
The newer images feature about 5,500 galaxies even within its smaller field of view. The faintest galaxies are one ten-billionth the brightness of what the human eye can see; just imagine that ratio for a single star or a planet.
So while there undoubtedly are an untold numbers of planets in the field, they will remain hidden for a very long time to come.
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.