AUSTIN (KXAN) — A star 13 billion light years away has been spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in a surprise discovery. Dr. Michelle Thaller, an astronomer with NASA, told KXAN that the star is one of oldest in the universe and the furthest from Earth ever discovered.
The Big Bang, the moment the universe began, occurred 13.8 billion years ago. The new star, nicknamed “Earendel” is around 12.9 billion years old. “This star, we’re actually seeing it so far in the past, it has to be one of the first few generations of stars that ever existed,” Thaller said.
The star’s nickname has a surprising origin. “If you like Lord of the Rings, if you like Tolkien, it’s actually a name from the Silmarillion and it means the dawn star.” Thaller said that the name comes from it being one of the first stars in the universe.
How do you discover an ancient star?
The Hubble Space Telescope has been observing space for nearly 32 years. Unlike the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble observes visible light. Visible light is what you and I see. It doesn’t travel very far and is easily blocked by just about anything.
Seeing “Earendel” was a bit of a cosmic miracle. “There is a cluster of galaxies about five, 5 billion light years away,” Thaller said.
“The cluster of galaxies has so much mass, that it’s actually warping space itself into a natural telescope. So space and time, I’m not exaggerating, space and time itself are curving around this cluster of galaxies. And just on the edge of where this curvature is, the star happens to be perfectly lined up.”
Because of space and time warping, the star is 1000x brighter than it normally would appear. Crazy, right?
Why should you care about billion-year-old stars?
Thaller said that studying these stars is part of discovering the origins of life itself. “We pretty much are sure that the first generation of stars had to be very different than stars we see today.”
The ancient stars were huge too. “They were 50 times the mass of the Sun, the star is a million times as bright as the sun is.”
However, that size and brightness had consequences. “These stars didn’t last long, they probably ripped themselves apart in just about a million years.” She said that the stars born at the dawn of time likely lived just a few million years, while our sun will likely live billions of years.
When they did this the hydrogen and helium, which were the only elements to exist at the dawn of time, exploded and transformed. “They formed all of the chemistry that makes us up. They are the calcium in my teeth, the iron in my blood, the carbon that makes me up came from these first generations of stars.”
Understanding these ancient stars is understanding what makes us on an elemental level. It is the study of what we are and where we came from.
The future of Hubble in an age of Webb
Hubble, despite still making amazing discoveries, is getting a little long in the tooth. Earlier this year, the James Webb Space Telescope launched into deep space. The telescope can see further and more than Hubble, but that doesn’t mean Hubble is retiring.
“They’re wonderful to use in conjunction because they look at very different parts of the universe,” Thaller said.
Thaller said that now that Hubble has discovered this star, Webb will likely star observing it and learning even more. Tthe two are working in conjunction, and they will continue to do that we hope until something breaks on Hubble.”
Thaller hopes that Hubble lasts for another 10 years.