A team of Japanese astronomers claims to have used the Subaru and Keck telescopes at Hawaii's Mauna Kea, pictured above, to observe a galaxy 12.91 billion light years from Earth. If their findings are correct (and the majority of astronomers thus far agree they are), it could well be the oldest galaxy ever discovered.
The galaxy's "oldest-ever" status ultimately boils down to whether other recent discoveries are as accurate as claimed. In 2010, French astronomers used Hubble Telescope to observe a galaxy they determined to be 13.1 billion light years away. Last year, a team of California astronomers used Hubble again to obseve a galaxy said to be 13.2 billion light years away. But these findings have yet to be verified to many researchers' satisfaction. According to The Guardian:
Richard Ellis of the California Institute of Technology, an influential expert in cosmology and galaxy formation, said the latest work was more convincing than some other claims of early galaxies.
He said the Japanese claim was more "watertight", using methods that everyone can agree on. But he said it was not much of a change from a similar finding by the same team last year.
"It's the most distant bullet-proof one that everybody believes," Ellis said.
Whether it actually is the most distant galaxy ever observed is almost irrelevant to those curious about the first half billion years of the Universe's existence; even a 13.2-billion-year-old galaxy leaves about that much of the Universe's history unaccounted for. That makes this another area of astronomy and astrophysics that stands to benefit in enormous ways from the James Webb Space Telescope, which, by the time its up and running in 2018, should allow us to peer way back, deep into the Universe's infancy — and in greater detail than any other telescope in history.
Read more at The Guardian.