The NASA Hubble space telescope has imaged the most distant star ever detected at a staggering 12.9 billion light years away. The light captured from Earendel (dubbed the ‘Morning Star’) is a snapshot from an epoch when the universe was only 1 billion years old, making it significantly older than the previous furthest star detected by Hubble in 2018. (That star was dated to 4 billion year after the big bang).
Normally stars at such immense distances would be undetectable, but its discovery was aided by the gravitational distortion from distant galaxy clusters, magnifying the star and its host galaxy in a phenomena called ‘gravitational lensing.
Gravitational lensing is analogous to the refraction of light from a glass lens, magnifying and revealing objects that would normally be occulted by closer structures by the bending of space near areas of high mass – like galaxy clusters. Sometimes duplicate images of the same object can be seen, creating copies of the object along symmetrical arcs. The image below illustrates this effect on a star cluster which appears either side of Earendel.
You might wonder how immense distances like this can be calculated given the complexity and uncertainty in pin pointing the distance to relatively close stars, let alone objects billions of light years away?
The principle tool used to measure these vast distances is an object’s spectral redshift – a measure of how much its light rays have been stretched (made longer) due to the fabric of space itself being stretched the further away we observe. Larger redshifts indicate objects that are further away – a relationship first accurately established by Edwin Hubble when cataloging the spectra from many distant galaxies.
Given the redshift of an object we can calculate its recessional speed (related to the global expansion of the universe) and from this its distance can be determined using the Hubble’s constant Ho. These calculations can be set out very simply:
V (recessional speed) = Red-shift x Speed of Light
In the case of Earendel the detected redshift from its spectra was 6.2. Therefore:
V (Earendel) = 6.2 x 300 million m/s = 1860 million m/s.
It’s important to note that this speed is faster than the speed of light! How can this be? Well this is actually a measure of the speed that space itself is expanding. Light cannot travel faster than 300 million m/s – our cosmological speed limit – but there is no limit on the rate at which the fabric of space can expand. In fact for general relativity to work space must be permitted to expand at potentially unlimited rates.
From the recessional speed we then use Hubble’s law to find the distance to the star:
D (distance) = V (recessional velocity) / H0 (Hubble’s constant)
This gives our published distance to Earendel of 12.9 billion light years! A staggering distance taking us back to the earliest period of star formation when the abundance of atomic elements in the universe was very different to today.
We believe the very first population of stars emerged around 100 to 250 million years after the big bang, so Earendel formed only a few hundred million yeas after this. The new James Webb telescope will likely continue to study Earendel in the infrared, at longer wavelengths, potentially revealing the star’s temperature and luminosity and therefore its stellar classification.