At first glance, it’s easy to miss a tiny, faint light hidden among a mesmerizing cluster of colorful stars.
But a new photo snapped by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has managed to make history.
The spacecraft was able to spot a blue ‘supergiant’ nine billion light years away.
The star, informally called ‘Icarus’, is the most distant single star ever to be observed by astronomers.
A rare gravitational lensing event has allowed astronomers to image the most distant single star ever observed. (NASA, ESA, and P. Kelly, University of Minnesota/PA)
Scientists reported on the findings in a new paper published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Usually at such distances scientists can only image galaxies, collections of billions of stars such as our own Milky Way, or supernovas and gamma ray bursts, colossal cosmic explosions.
Beyond about 100 million light years it is impossible to make out individual stars even with the most powerful telescopes.
In this case, a rare cosmic alignment naturally magnified the supergiant more than 2,000 times, allowing astronomers to see it.
This phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, occurs when a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies bend the light emitted from a more distant galaxy.
In effect, the galaxies act as a magnifying glass that can render dim far away objects visible.
The Hubble Space Telescope (pictured), discovered the ‘Icarus’ star in images snapped over the course of a year between April 2016 and 2017
WHAT IS GRAVITATIONAL LENSING?
Gravitational lensing occurs when a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies bend the light emitted from a more distant galaxy.
This forms a highly magnified, though much distorted image.
This is because massive objects bend the spacetime around them, making light travel in a different path.
This theory was first proposed by Einstein in his theory of General Relativity.
‘For the first time ever, we’re seeing an individual normal star, not a supernova, not a gamma ray burst, but a single tablet star, a distance of nine billion light years,’ said Alex Filippenko, a co-author of the study.
‘These lenses are amazing cosmic telscopes’.
He added that other gravitational lensing alignments should allow more distant stars to be studied.
‘There are alignments like this all over the place as background stars or stars in lensing galaxies move around, offering the possibility of studying very distant stars dating from the early universe, just as we have been using gravitational lensing to study distant galaxies,’ said Prof Filippenko.
‘For this type of research, nature has provided us with a larger telescope than we can possibly build’.
The B-type blue supergiant star is hundreds or even thousands of times brighter than the sun.
It was discovered in Hubble Space Telescope images snapped over the course of a year between April 2016 and 2017.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in partnership between the European Space Agency and NASA in 1990. Pictured is one-half of the telescope’s field of view in 2006
The scientists were observing a galaxy cluster 5 billion light years away when they discovered a ‘flickering light’ in the background.
As they examined it closer, they discovered that it was not from a star exploding at the end of its life, but a blue star.
Gravitational lensing had bent space-time to magnify the star’s image, allowing the scientists to see it for the first time with the naked eye.
The lensing phenomenon, predicted by Albert Einstein, is the result of a massive object bending space-time around it and forcing light beams to take a curved path.
‘You can see individual galaxies out there, but this star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions,’ said Lead Scientist Dr Patrick Kelly, who worked on the observations while at the University of California at Berkeley.
WHAT DOES THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE DO?
The Hubble Space Telescope (pictured) recently captured a stunning image of a galaxy 20 million light years away
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency.
The Hubble is a space-based and long-term observatory.
The Hubble observes ultraviolet wavelengths, which the atmosphere filters out, and it collects visible light.
‘The Hubble Space Telescope has made some of the most dramatic discoveries in the history of astronomy,’ a statement on the Telescope says.
The machinery sits more than 370 miles above earth.
It can pick up on light via its ‘eyes’, which are five times more focused than ground-based telescopes.
The Hubble focuses on areas in deep outer space ‘where some of the most profound mysteries are still buried in the mists of time’.
The star has the long formal name MACS J1149 Lensed Star 1 (LS1), but has been dubbed ‘Icarus’ by the astronomers.
Icarus is now believed to be much farther away and will have died, according to the Guardian.
In its place, a black hole or a neutron star is likely to have formed.
Scientists expect many more magnified stars will be discovered when the ‘Super Hubble’ space telescope becomes operational.
Called the James Webb Telescope, it is considered a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.
Originally, the observatory was supposed to fly this year, but then in autumn the space agency pushed the launch back to 2019 and then today announced it would not fly until 2020.