We’ve set a new benchmark in the world of stars: the farthest individual star ever seen to date. This one has a predicted mass at least 50 times that of our Sun and is millions of times brighter, plus, was created within the first billion years of the Big Bang. This may seem like a long time after the beginning of our universe, though if you consider that our own Sun was created around eight billion years after the Big Bang, this newly discovered star is one old celestial body!
NASA’s Hubble Telescope captured the incredibly old star named Earendel, meaning “morning star” in Old English. The newly launched James Webb Space Telescope was brought in alongside Hubble to confirm the discovery. Webb’s high sensitivity to infrared light offered certainty of the brightness, temperature, and composition of the star, giving clues to what life cycle stage it’s currently at.
How was such a distant star spotted?
Scientists can only infer what they know about stars from what reaches Earth, which is light. In this case, Earendel’s light only just reached Earth, after 12.9 billion years. “Normally at these distances, entire galaxies look like small smudges, with the light from millions of stars blending together,” explained astronomer Brian Welch.
Luckily a huge galaxy cluster, named WHL0137-08, is currently sitting in between Earendel and Earth which acts as a natural magnifier. The mass of the cluster warps the fabric of space, distorting and amplifying objects in the distance behind it by a thousandfold during this rare alignment.
The future looks bright
Earendel’s discovery gives hope to scientists studying early stars and hugely increases understanding in their field. There are many theories about star formation in the early universe, but this concrete data will help narrow down which ones are correct, getting us closer to the answers to the origins of our universe.
“Earendel existed so long ago that it may not have had all the same raw materials as the stars around us today,” Welch explained. “Studying Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with, but that led to everything we do know. It’s like we’ve been reading a really interesting book, but we started with the second chapter, and now we will have a chance to see how it all got started.”
Scientists are hopeful that they can spot stars even further than Earendel thanks to Webb’s powerful cameras. “With Webb, we may see stars even farther than Earendel, which would be incredibly exciting,” Welch said. “We’ll go as far back as we can. I would love to see Webb break Earendel’s distance record.”