Stellar Discovery: Hubble Space Telescope captures image of farthest star ever seen

Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 2:47 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a record-breaking discovery.

“It’s like you’ve found this box in your attic and it had family photos of generations beyond,” said Dr. Padi Boyd.

Dr. Boyd, a NASA Astrophysicist, joined us on the WDBJ7+ Digital News Desk Wednesday to explain the discovery.

You can listen to this story here:

“I’m very excited to talk about the result!” she said.

Wednesday researchers shared an image they say shows the farthest individual star even seen.

Hubble, which has been in orbit nearly 32 years, captured an image of a red arc the researchers called the Sunrise Arc. Within that arc they discovered a star they call Earendel, Old English for “Morning Star.”

Hubble’s advanced technology was aided by a natural magnifying lens. Dr. Boyd explained Earendel is surrounded by a cluster of galaxies which, collectively, contain a mass so powerful that it created an instance of “gravitational lensing,” thus blowing up the image about 1,000 times or more for Hubble to see.

“The team was kind of in disbelief,” she said of the discovery.

Dr. Boyd said the light formed form this single star is unprecedented. The researchers believe the light left Earendel more than 12.9 billion years ago. This is significant because at the time the light left Earendel, our universe was less than a billion years old. Now, our universe is a teenager at an estimated 13.8 billion years.

“This is a rare window where we can see one of the first stars that evolved,” Dr. Boyd explained.

Earendel will be a keystone target for the new James Webb Space Telescope, developed in part with the work of a North Cross graduate.

Dr. Boyd said researchers will focus in on Earendel to learn what the environment was like when the universe was in its infancy. It’s like looking back archeologically or genealogically, like that family photo album metaphor she used.

“You start to see where you came from,” Boyd said. “You start to see what looks like you.”

She explained that stars like Earendel live and die quickly and then they explode - spewing materials from their core that get absorbed into the next generation of stars. Our universe as we see it today is an evolved one, composed of hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, neon and other elements that were fused in the center of stars before they died.

Earendel, according to Dr. Boyd, is one or the universe’s earliest stars. Boyd said it is long gone and probably a black hole by now.

“But it’s spewed material into its surroundings that led to the birth of new stars that had heavier elements in them and eventually to stars like our own star that has planets around it - rocky little words like Earth with atmospheres,” she explained. “So I think Earendel is just like this opportunity to see one of the earliest moments of that evolution.”

To learn more about the discovery, check out the Hubble website.

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