“A massive cluster (left) magnified a distant star more than 2,000 times, making it visible from Earth (lower right) even though it is 9 billion light years away, far too distant to be seen individually with current telescopes. It was not visible in 2011 (upper right). (NASA, ESA, and P. Kelly University of Minnesota)
NASA says that thanks to a “quirk of nature,” researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered the farthest individual ever seen by mankind.
The U.S. space agency reports in a news release that the star is located in a distant galaxy about nine billion light-years (about 36 trillion miles) from Earth. NASA says the blue star, nicknamed Icarus, appears in the photos above at about 30 percent of its current age.
This “quirk of nature” amplified the distant star’s glow, and allowed astronomers to set the new distant record.
“The cosmic quirk that makes this star visible is a phenomenon called ‘gravitational lensing,'” NASA reports in a news release. “Gravity from a foreground, massive cluster of galaxies acts as a natural lens in space, bending and amplifying light.
“Sometimes light from a single background object appears as multiple images. The light can be highly magnified, making extremely faint and distant objects bright enough to see.”
The “natural magnifying glass” that helped create this image NASA speaks of in the release is actually a galaxy cluster between Earth and the star about 5 billion light-years away from our planet. Researchers using the Hubble used this natural gravitational lens and its “exquisite resolution” to study the distant star of Icarus.
“This is the first time we’re seeing a magnified, individual star,” study leader Patrick Kelly of the University of Minnesota said in the space agency’s release.
“You can see individual galaxies out there, but this star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions.”
NASA says the team responsible for discovering Icarus had been using the space telescope to track a supernova in a far-away galaxy. In 2016, the team noticed a new light source near the supernova they were tracking.
After taking a closer look at the colors of the light coming from the object, the team determined it was a blue supergiant star which is larger, gotter and “hundreds of thousands of times intrinsically brighter than our Sun.”
The space agency points out that more distant discoveries will become possible once its James Webb Space Telescope is launched and activated. Unfortunately, NASA announced late last month that would once again delay the launch of its James Webb Space Telescope this time until around May 2020.
NASA said that its original launch window of 2019 was not doable as “final integration and test phases” will require more time to make sure the mission goes off without a hitch. The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest space telescope ever built.
“When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is launched, astronomers expect to find many more stars like Icarus,” the space agency says. “Webb’s extraordinary sensitivity will allow measurement of even more details, including whether these distant stars are rotating. Such magnified stars may even be found to be fairly common.”
NASA says the Webb telescope will serve as the “premier observatory” for the next decade — whenever it launches — as it will aim to serve thousands of astronomers around the world. The U.S. space agency, European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency are partners on this project, which NASA estimates could exceed its $8 billion developmental cost in the final phase.