Believed to be 13.2 billion light-years away, this image shows one of the earliest and farthest galaxies in the universe. The image was created through an ultra-deep-field exposure taken with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Photo courtesy of NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (University of California, Santa Cruz, and Leiden University), and the HUDF09 team.

UC Santa Cruz astronomers have detected what may be the most distant galaxy ever found by scientists. This galaxy is the closest in age to the Big Bang and helps astronomers understand how the universe grew into the solar system we know today.

“[These galaxies] are actually so far away that the light has taken most of the life of the universe to reach us,” said Garth Illingworth, professor of astronomy and astrophysics. “We’re looking back through most of the life of the universe—we’re looking back through 13.2 billion [light-]years.”

Looking this far into space requires a powerful tool: the Hubble Space Telescope. The telescope orbits around Earth, taking far-reaching pictures of the universe.

Scientists used this telescope to obtain the biggest picture of the universe ever taken. The infrared image was then combined with the deepest optical image of the universe, which created a vast visual reaching far into outer space.

The discovery of this galaxy allows astronomers to make data-driven statements about the universe’s early growth. Looking at the star formation in galaxies such as this enables astronomers to assess how rapidly or slowly the universe was forming during its youth.

This image is provided by a 500-pound camera, Illingworth said. The astronomers that captured the image looked at one spot on the sky for 87 hours.

“[In] the photograph, because it’s so far away, the galaxy image is so small … This object is about 2,000 times smaller than [your pinky finger],” said UCSC astronomy professor Raja Guha Thakurta.

The discovery of this galaxy pushed Hubble to its limits. So the recent breakthrough leans against the boundaries of technology.

Hubble’s new camera is responsible for its recent reach into the previously unseen depths of the universe.

“It’s just like when you go and buy a digital camera now,” Illingworth said. “It’s way more sophisticated.”

UCSC astronomer Rychard Bouwens credits Hubble with much of the success.

“These instruments really allowed us to do this,” he said. “Looking back through all of cosmic time is not so easy, so you’re going to need a very good camera.”

The galaxy candidate formed 200 to 300 million years after the Big Bang, a time when the universe was only 4 percent of its current age. Being able to view this galaxy is like finding a picture of outer space as a toddler, an unprecedented addition to the universe’s photo album.

Deeper discovery into the universe will have to wait for The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2014.

“It always inspires wonder in your mind that we can use this instrument to go back to the beginning of time,” Bouwens said. “To be on the cutting edge, you just feel like you’re exploring for the rest of humanity and reporting back what you can see.”