This is a record and a huge leap forward: the previous record holder was only four billion light-years away. The new standard star likely had more than 50 times the mass of our sun and burned out after a few hundred thousand years, the discovery team reports in the journal Nature.
Astronomers led by Brian Welch of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore named the star “Erndel” – after an Old English word for morning star. The researchers managed to track down the “Earendel” with cosmic support: between the Earth and the distant star there is a huge group of galaxies, which, like a gravitational lens, amplified the star’s light by more than a thousand factors.
Welch and colleagues compare the effect of the galaxy cluster to the surface of a swimming pool: the ripples break up incoming sunlight and create a pattern of bright streaks at the bottom of the pool. Scientists call these streaks caustic – areas where light is greatly amplified. The gravity of the galaxy cluster diverts the light from celestial bodies located behind the cluster in a similar way to the surface of the water, thus also generating caustic substances – which, when magnified, can make distant stars visible.
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behind a galaxy cluster
Astronomers know many examples of this, and the previous record holder, discovered by the Hubble telescope in 2018, is behind a galaxy cluster. So, Welch and his colleagues searched the caustic materials of such galactic clusters, which act as gravitational lenses, in search of notable objects—successfully. Despite the higher magnification provided by a gravitational lens, ‘Earendel’ appears as a point-like object in a galaxy 12.9 billion light-years away.
This allows astronomers to see the star as it appeared 900 million years after the Big Bang. The era of “Erndel” is long gone, because the greater the mass of the star, the hotter and brighter it will be, and therefore faster its energy source is consumed. While a star like our Sun has been around for about ten billion years, Erndel likely exploded as a supernova after a maximum of 600 million years and then disappeared.
However, Welch and his colleagues were unable to make any more precise statements about the distant star – the researchers would need the “new James Webb Space Telescope” for this. This would make it possible to decompose light from ‘Erndel’ into its wavelengths and thus obtain information about its composition and temperature – for astronomers an important insight into the history of the first stars in the young universe.
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