Cluster tucked at the far reaches of the Universe

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2009 10:25 am

A cluster of galaxies recently observed by three different telescopes now holds the record for the most distant ever seen: 10.2 billion light years, a solid billion light years farther away than the previous record holder!


[Click to embiggen.]

The cluster, called JKCS041 — evidently all the cool names have already been taken — was discovered in 2006 and subsequently observed by Chandra. The image above also includes observations by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Digitized Sky Survey. In this image, the blue glow is from X-ray-emitting hot gas between galaxies, and the white galaxies are from the optical and infrared observations.

The image doesn’t look like much, but it’s scientifically amazing. When light left those galaxies, the Universe was only about 3.5 billion years old! Remember, for a long time the whole cosmos was just gas, and that took a long time to collect, clump up, and form stars and galaxies. It’s currently thought that it took a few billion years for clusters of galaxies to form after the Big Bang, so JKCS041 looks like it was an early bloomer. We may find even more distant clusters, but there probably aren’t too many more out there, and they almost certainly won’t be much farther away than this one.

Clusters are among the largest structures in the Universe (the only things bigger are superclusters; clusters of clusters if you like), so studying them tells us a lot about conditions in the early Universe. And, of course, the farther back we find them the more interesting things get! I suspect that the newly-refurbished Hubble may be pointed this way sometime soon, too, and I also imagine JKCS041 will be a good target for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be the largest space telescope ever launched. When it’s observed by these observatories, what secrets about dark matter, dark energy, and the early Universe will the cluster reveal?

And since I hate ending posts with rhetorical flourishes, I’ll take a stab at a generic answer: surprises. Whenever we probe deeper, look farther, the one thing we discover is that the Universe will always have something unexpected up its sleeve. That’s one reason science is so much fun!

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/S.Andreon et al Optical: DSS; ESO/VLT.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (36)

  1. amstrad

    Man, what a cluster tuck! (sorry I couldn’t resist. now I’ll go back and actually read the posting)…

  2. I think I just fell in love with this galactic cluster. If only I had its phone number. Sadly, it probably has lost its youthful glow over the past 10 billion years.

  3. I for one love surprises. Eventhe nasty ones that make you reconsider ideas you may have had before. While some would consider being wrong from time to time to be a fatal falw, it is the greatest strength of science, because that’s how we correct ourselves and get better information about reality!

  4. Thou shalt not use light travel distance in popular astronomy – even if the Chandra PIO does …

  5. Asimov Fan

    The cluster, called JKCS041 — evidently all the cool names have already been taken —

    Never mind the “cool” part that’s not even a name in my book! 😉

    Has your old (or not so old really) space observatory Fermi (ex-GLAST) observed this cluster at all? Does it plan to do so? Or is viewing at the wrong wavelengths to spot it??

    Fianlly, would the stars in this galaxy have been those very earliest “population III” type stars? Weren’t those supposed to be quite different – virtually no “metallicity” and *really* supermassive? Can we tell based on studying this cluster?

  6. Dammit! Amstrad stole my joke.

    That’s all I got 😉

  7. Amenhotepstein

    What I find the coolest are the tiny specks of light in the background of the image – presumably galaxies even further away?

    What is the hypothesis when we can finally see beyond the earliest point of galaxy formation – a giant dust cloud preceeded by a shock-front beyond which is infinity?

  8. Are we yet seeing stars that existed BEFORE THE INVENTION OF IRON? Or is that still a few years away? This is awesome.

  9. How does the HUDF compare to this?

  10. Asimov Fan

    @7 BMurray: That’s what I’m asking there too albiet taking more words to ask it. Mind you I think the word is

    “before iron formed via stellar nucleosynthesis rather than was “invented”

    …to be well pretty pedantic with you really. 😉

  11. AliCali

    @ Dan (#4)

    Your link begins by addressing a question I always have: “…if a distant cluster of galaxies is 9.1 billion light years away in a universe that is 13.7 billion years old, how did the cluster get so far away in only 4.6 billion years?”

    But my eyes glazed over trying to read the explanation about red shift. I’m sure this has to do with Relativity or some Physics thing. Is there a more simplistic version so I can understand why we can see something only a few billions years old when we were supposedly a part of that at time zero (Big Bang) over 13 billions years ago?

  12. “How did everything get so far away so fast?” is a common question. Heck, I think there is a thread over at the JREF about that right now. It has to do a lot with the fact that space itself is expanding, thus giving the relative appearance of things going away faster than c.

  13. Kevin

    That’s kind of totally awesome. Space is nifty.

  14. OtherRob

    So is every bit of light in the pic a galaxy? Or are some foreground stars from our own galaxy?

  15. Ca n´Internet

    here I sit under a clouded sky with my 5.1″ telescope called Humbble

  16. @12 AliCali


    The universe is expanding. Imagine a scenario where you are standing still while your friend runs away from you as fast as he can. Now imagine that he is now running at the same speed on a moving sidewalk, the kind you find at the airport. His overall relative speed is now faster, and distance traveled is farther, given the same amount of time. The universe is expanding and carrying everything in it along for the ride.

    For more info, I recommend episode 58 of Astronomy Cast. Click my name.

  17. Amazing! I wonder what those galaxies look like now and what kinds of civilizations might be there.

    I have an unrelated astronomy question…last night I was looking at the beautiful crescent moon right after sunset and I noticed a bright light that looked like a star “below” the moon, maybe halfway between the earth and the sky, and I was wondering if it’s possible that that was a planet? I don’t usually see very many stars where I am, and the astronomy photo of the day today was of the moon at sunset with 3 planets visible, so I’m thinking it might have been. Anyone know? I’m in the northern hemisphere, central Canada. Thanks!

  18. Cool, thanks for the link!

  19. Aaron F.

    Cool! It boggles my mind that a few decades from now, we might be able to watch the transition from a universe with no clusters to a universe with clusters… or even the transition from a universe with no galaxies to a universe with galaxies!

    Does anyone here know how the colors in the optical and infrared images correspond to wavelength bands? I’m used to looking at images where long-wavelength filters are represented by reddish colors, so low-, medium-, and high-redshift galaxies end up looking yellow, orange, or red. As a result, I’m having trouble reconciling the fact that this is the highest-redshift cluster ever seen with the fact that it’s bright blue. :)

  20. Gamercow

    ” This universe has been described by many, but it just goes on, with its edge as unknown as the bottom of the bottomless sea of the other idea – just as mysterious, just as awe-inspiring, and just as incomplete as the poetic pictures that came before.

    But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observation could ever have imagined such a marvel as nature is.”

    – Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988)

  21. Ca n´Internet

    Here, now you can also figure out when you can see the International Space Station coming over. It outbrights everything and moves very quickly. Register with(!) your location (see google earth) et voila:

  22. John Swindle

    I hope someone here will adjust my ignorance. I followed the link to the James Webb site and read of the planned Space Telescope, “JWST will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe”
    I remember reading that something like a “cosmic horizon” exists, beyond which we will never see because objects past that line move away from us too fast for their light to ever reach us. I assumed that would include the first galaxies. What part(s) of this did I get wrong?

  23. Stonegiant

    I read the first two words rather like amstrad jokes… Awesome.

  24. LDB

    What is the FOV of the image above?

    Would be expect to find clusters like this evenly distributed across the sky?

  25. Dave Jerrard

    John Swindle; At risk of sounding like a shill for Phil’s book (and hoping I don’t get in trouble for it), I recommend picking up Death From The Skies. I also wondered how objects could be so far away if the universe was only 13.7 billion years old, and I was convinced someone goofed for a long time. Phil’s book explained this very well, covering the cosmic horizon concept exceptionally well.

    Of course, now I’m just sad that there’s stuff out there we’re never going to be able to see and that over time we’ll be seeing less & less of the universe.

    He Who Doesn’t Think That’s Very Fair.

  26. @Dave Jerrard
    Phil wrote a book?

  27. Reading something like “cluster tucked” is interesting for us dyslexics!

  28. mike burkhart

    Like I said keep the images coming the amazing thing is that when this cluster formed the earth had not formed yet it would be billons of years untill the solar system formed ,earth formed, and life appered on earth,humans appered,and astronomers discoverd this cluster

  29. Bernardo

    is it farther than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field?

  30. This is the latest take on the most distant galaxy cluster observable which is cool. But in another few years the exact same story will break. The point is that for every few years the same observations will be seen. The conclusion eventually from all of this will be to understood that the universe is much older than the standard model presently allows.


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