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Hubble Spots Most Distant Star Ever, Getting a Literal Look Back in Time

The star's light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach Earth.

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The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted the most distant single star ever seen. At 28 billion light-years away, the star is at least 50 times the mass of our sun — and millions of times brighter. Astronomers have nicknamed the star "Earendel," derived from an Old English word that means "morning star."

The observation offers a literal leap back in time. The previous record-holder, viewed by Hubble in 2018, was dubbed "Icarus" and is located in a distant spiral galaxy. Its light has taken nine billion years to reach Earth; Earendel's has taken 12.9 billion years.

Both Earendel and the former record-holder are able to be seen only with a combination of the Hubble's sophisticated technology and nature's "natural magnifying glass," referring to a rare alignment with the magnifying galaxy cluster that leads to the star's maximum magnification and brightening.

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The sighting could help astronomers explore the universe's earliest years. According to Brian Welch, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, "Studying Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with, but that led to everything we do know. It's like we've been reading a really interesting book, but we started with the second chapter, and now we will have a chance to see how it all got started."

Now, the research team will use the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope to observe Earendel and determine if it's actually a single star rather than two right next to each other. Webb will also allow researchers to learn more about Earendel's brightness, temperature and composition.

Earendel was formed before the universe was filled with the heavy elements produced by successive generations of massive stars, so its composition is of particular interest to astronomers. If Webb reveals that the star is made up solely of primordial hydrogen and helium, that would classify it as a Population III star — hypothesized to be the first to exist following the big bang.

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"With Webb, we may see stars even farther than Earendel, which would be incredibly exciting," Welch says. "We'll go as far back as we can. I would love to see Webb break Earendel's distance record."

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