From high on the slopes of Mexico’s tallest mountain, one of the world’s most powerful telescopes has discovered a new galaxy.
Twenty-seven billion light-years from earth, the formation is one of the oldest things in the universe, and the second most-distant object yet known to mankind.
The discovery was made as part of a joint study between the University of Massachusetts Astrophysics department and the Mexican team led by Jorge Zavala.
“It’s twenty-seven billion light-years away, an incomprehensible distance,” he told CGTN over a Skype interview. “The galaxy has existed for 97 percent of the life of the universe.”
“But it’s an important discovery because our current understanding of the universe doesn’t allow for the formation of such a massive galaxy so soon after the Big Bang,” he added.
Zavala and his team used the Large Millimeter Telescope in eastern Mexico, which sits on the slopes of Citlaltepetl, a dormant volcano and Mexico’s highest peak.
“It’s up here to avoid the atmospheric moisture which would affect the telescope’s readings,” said David Hughes, the telescope’s director.
The LMT is the world’s largest millimeter telescope, a precision instrument, whose dish is held to precise specifications. It’s five rings of panels must be aligned to within 50 microns – one twentieth of a millimeter – in order to detect high frequency waves which reach earth from the far reaches of outer space.
Yet, because the light has taken billions of years to reach planet Earth, the astronomers cannot say whether their new discovery still even exists.
“When the light from this galaxy started travelling towards us, it has been more than 90 percent of the history of the universe, and today, we’re now receiving that light”, said Hughes.
“It’s a galaxy that exists very early in the history of the universe. It may not even exist as a galaxy today. We’re travelling back in time, we’re seeing that galaxy at the moment of formation, but what does that galaxy look like today? We have no idea.”
While the Mexican astronomer’s discovery may not appear definitive, the stargazer is not disheartened.
“It shows us that our science isn’t perfect,” said Zavala, “and that we still have a long way to go in understanding our universe.”
From above the clouds, Hughes and his team say they will continue to search the distant skies.