The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the most distant galaxy ever seen by astronomers, sitting at the edge of the visible universe. This object sits at the theoretical distance limit for the space-borne observatory.

Galaxy GN-z11 is seen 13.4 billion light years from Earth, significantly more distant than any other similar body ever recorded.

Astronomers pushed the Hubble telescope to its limit in order to record the presence of the ancient collection of stars. Due to the finite speed of light, the picture released today is recorded in light produced almost nine billion years before the formation of our solar system. At that time, the universe was just 400 million years old —  just 200 to 300 million years after the first stars in the universe began to shine.

"We've taken a major step back in time, beyond what we'd ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age," said Pascal Oesch of Yale University.

Astronomers believe the galaxy had a mass equal to around one billion times that of our local sun, and produced new stars at a surprising rate. However, even this is just one percent of the mass and four percent the size of the Milky Way galaxy.

The distance to far-flung galaxies can be determined by measuring the redshift of the collection of stars. Due to the expansion of the universe, objects further out in space appear to be traveling away from Earth at a faster rate than objects closer to our home world. Prior to this recent measurement, the most distant object ever seen by astronomers was a galaxy recorded 13.2 billion light years from Earth.

The infant galaxy is seen within the constellation of Ursa Major. Researchers are striving to view galaxies that formed in the early universe, in an effort to better understand how the astronomical formations we see around us today started to take shape.

The James Webb Telescope, designed as the direct successor to Hubble, will soon be used in the search for additional galaxies at the edge of the observable universe. That instrument is scheduled for launch in 2018. Another upcoming observatory, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (Wfirst), will also be utilized in the hunt for the first galaxies ever produced.

Analysis of the distant galaxy will be profiled in the March 8 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

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