A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away

Feast your eyes on this image…

Image credit: The CLASH team/Space Telescope Science Institute

The tiny object in that inset may not look like much. A blurry smudge of red pixels. Not nearly as dramatic as the stunning bouquet of galaxies all around it. But in astronomy, not everything is quite so straightforward. That small red smudge is probably the most exciting thing in this whole image. You see, it too is a galaxy. An unimaginably ancient one.

An ultraviolet image of the nearby Andromeda Galaxy – possibly similar to what we might see of MACS 1149-JD if we could get a more detailed view... Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler (GSFC) and Erin Grand (UMCP)

The light that made this unassuming red dot left its source less than 500 million years after the Big Bang and the birth of the Universe. The photons that make up that light have been travelling for over 13.2 billion years. This galaxy was blazing brightly as the oldest known stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, were just starting to shine. Back when the gas which would one day become the Sun was still drifting silently amongst stars which are now long dead, and before planet Earth was even a whisper of interstellar dust. Before a massive star forged the iron atoms in your blood, and before a supernova scattered those atoms into space. Before anything we know from the world around us existed, even the stars we see as we look up to the night sky, this galaxy was shining in the dark.

The Universe was a much smaller place back then. Over the billions of years these photons have been travelling, the Universe itself has expanded with them in the midst of it – stretching them out, redshifting them to longer and longer wavelengths. The light we see here as red was probably ultraviolet once, when it left the galaxy which created it.

Ancient galaxies like these are difficult to see, purely because they’re so distant. So few photons make it this far that only the most sensitive telescopes can make them out, and even then they need a helping hand. The bloom of galaxies in this image is a massive galaxy cluster called MACS J1149+2223. A collection of galaxies bound together by gravity, clusters like these are some of the largest and most massive objects in the Universe. With that much mass gathered together, gravity starts to do some interesting things, and one of the most interesting is gravitational lensing. Because the gravity of all of those galaxies distorts spacetime, it actually causes the space around the galaxies to act like a titanic lens. A gravitational lens. The ancient red galaxy in this image is only visible because it’s magnified, not only by the Hubble Space Telescope, but by that gravitational lens too.

It would be naive to assume that this galaxy, dubbed MACS 1149-JD, is special somehow. Instead, it’s most likely to be one of a huge number of primordial galaxies. Except that this one just happened to be in the right place at the right time. A whole population of these ancient galaxies were likely shining brightly at the time, full of hot stars which were driving the reionisation epoch – the time when the Universe went from being an opaque, dark fog, to a clear place where photons could travel long distances. The photons in this image may well have been some of the first photons to have travelled through that ancient and newly transparent Universe.

The scientific paper is available from Nature – DOI: 10.1038/nature11446