A mosaic of six distant galaxies discovered by gravitational lensing is seen in this handout picture released by the W.M. Keck Observatory
D. Stark, J. Richard, R. Ellis  /  Caltech - W.M. Keck Observatory via Reuters
A mosaic of six distant galaxies discovered by gravitational lensing is seen in this picture released by the W.M. Keck Observatory on July 10, 2007. Each image reveals a faint spectrum line (circled). Astronomers interpret these signals as arising from a line of neutral hydrogen, significantly 'redshifted' from its normal location in the ultraviolet.
updated 7/12/2007 7:27:11 AM ET 2007-07-12T11:27:11

Astronomers believe they've glimpsed light from some of the universe's first stars through the world's largest telescope on the Big Island.

The astronomy team from the California Institute of Technology, which was to present its findings in London on Wednesday, said they used the Keck II telescope atop Mauna Kea volcano to see farther into space than ever before.

By magnifying the telescope's range, the scientists said they were able to see light generated by galaxies 13 billion years ago, when the universe was only 500 million years old.

At that time, the universe was still in its "Dark Ages" because hydrogen atoms hadn't broken apart and stars hadn't yet formed.

"We have detected six faint star-forming galaxies," said graduate student Dan Stark. "We estimate the combined radiation output of this population could be sufficient to break apart the hydrogen atoms in space at that time, thereby ending the Dark Ages."

The astronomers said they were able to push the telescope to its limits by using a gravitational lens.

Team leader Richard Ellis said the group's technique was to increase the telescope's magnifying capability by focusing on a large object in the foreground and then looking around its edges into the space beyond. The bending of light around the object creates the universe's own magnification.

A Hubble Space telescope image released by the W.M. Keck Observatory
D. Stark  /  Caltech via Reuters
Each foreground cluster of galaxies acts as a natural telescope with particularly strong magnification along the 'critical lines' indicated here with black curves.
In this case, the scientists used a massive cluster of galaxies to do the light bending for them.

These faraway galaxies appeared to be very faint because their light has been traveling through space over these billions of years, Ellis said.

"There's not a chance we could have done it with a smaller scope," he said.

The researchers made their discoveries months ago after they spent 14 nights observing the sky.

They waited until completing tests to support their findings before revealing what they saw.

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