“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age.” -Pascal Oesch
Arriving at our eyes after a journey of 13.4 billion years, the light from galaxy GN-z11 has been traveling towards us for 97% of the Universe’s present age. It’s detection and discovery, however, was a lot more complicated than simply opening up your telescope’s eyes and collecting enough light; a confluence of four separate things needed to happen all at once to make it possible.
Schematic diagram of the Universe’s history, highlighting reionization. Before stars or galaxies formed, the Universe was full of light-blocking, neutral atoms. While most of the Universe doesn’t become reionized until 550 million years afterwards, a few fortunate regions are mostly reionized at earlier times. Image credit: S. G. Djorgovski et al., Caltech Digital Media Center.
The telescope itself needed to be configured to detect light that had been shifted by the Universe’s expansion from ultraviolet to infrared. The volume of the Universe, from here to there, needed to be reionized enough to allow light to pass through it. Gravitational lensing needed to magnify the background galaxy to make it detectable. And spectroscopic confirmation was needed to ensure that the galaxy wasn’t an impostor.
The Great Observatories Origins Deep Studies North field (GOODS-N), cropped to show the Universe’s most distant galaxy, in red. All four of these circumstances needed to come together at once to make this galaxy’s discovery possible. Image credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz; Yale University), R. Bouwens and I. Labbé (Leiden University), and the Science Team.
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