Scientists are expecting great things from the new James Webb Space Telescope, but its predecessor is still helping them spot cosmic wonders including what is believed to be the most distant star ever seen. Light from Earendel, which got its nickname from the Old English word for morning star," took 12.8 billion years to reach the Hubble Space Telescope, Space.com reports. The star in the Sunrise Arc formed just 900 million years after the Big Bang but researchers say what they are seeing is not an ancient star, but a "little snapshot in amber of the past" showing a young star that died billions of years before our sun was born.
Researchers say Earendel, which may have been one of the first generation of stars after the Big Bang, was so massive that it probably survived for only a few million years. It was around 50 times the size of our sun and around a million times brighter. Scientists were able to spot Earendel by using a curve in spacetime caused by the huge galaxy cluster WHL0137-08 as a lens to magnify distant objects in the background. Galaxies even more distant than Earendel have been detected before, but not light from an individual star.
Individual stars usually appear "smooshed together," says NASA astrophysicist Jane Rigby, per the AP. "But here, nature has given us this one star—highly, highly magnified, magnified by factors of thousands—so that we can study it." Researchers describe Earendel as a window into the early universe and they hope to learn a lot more about it when the Webb telescope, 100 times more powerful than Hubble, becomes fully operational later this year. (NASA says the Webb telescope is already beating expectations.)