We currently think that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old. With that in mind, the zoomed-in cutaway above is pointing to a very, very distant galaxy, which we've observed 420 million years after the big bang. That means the light we're seeing from it spent 13.3 billion years traveling through the cosmos. Whoa.
The galaxy, known as MACS0647-JD, was spotted by the Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (or CLASH), which is an effort by a global team of researchers captained by Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The group employs a technique called gravitational lensing to study the stars, which involves using a cluster of galaxies as a loose focal point to spot the light of an even more distant object as that light curves around said galaxies.
"This cluster does what no manmade telescope can do," Postman said in a release by NASA. "Without the magnification, it would require a Herculean effort to observe this galaxy." In fact, MACS0647-JD may be so far away that we can't observe it using today's manmade telescopes, which means we can't use spectroscopy to confirm just how distant it really is. Still, the CLASH survey team is "confident the fledgling galaxy is the new distance champion," with MACS0647-JD beating out another faraway galaxy examined by the survey, which was observed 490 million years after the big bang.
Here's more about this fresh observation from NASA:
MACS0647-JD is so small it may be in the first steps of forming a larger galaxy. An analysis shows the galaxy is less than 600 light-years wide. Based on observations of somewhat closer galaxies, astronomers estimate that a typical galaxy of a similar age should be about 2,000 light-years wide. For comparison, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy companion to the Milky Way, is 14,000 light-years wide. Our Milky Way is 150,000 light-years across.
So, what's MACS0647-JD up to now? 13 billion years is a pretty long time, after all about the time it took me to play through Borderlands 2. Here's a few thoughts from Dan Coe, also of the Space Telescope Science Institute, who said the following in NASA's release: "This object may be one of many building blocks of a galaxy Over the next 13 billion years, it may have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of merging events with other galaxies and galaxy fragments."