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. … Read more