Like something out of a sci-fi movie, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered the most distant star ever seen—through a cosmic fluke.
Nicknamed “Earendel,” the star’s light took 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, and scientists believe it emitted light throughout the first billion years of our universe’s existence. Beside its age, Earendel’s position is also curious. According to NASA, Hubble was able to detect the star thanks to gravitational lensing, a phenomenon in which a massive object (like a galaxy) warps the fabric of space. When light reaches the warped space, it can act like a magnifying glass and highlight objects we’d otherwise have a difficult time seeing.
And that’s how Earendel—whose Old English name is akin to “morning star” or “rising light”—was found (though Tolkien fans will recognize it as a riff on Eärendil, the half-Elven seafarer who carried a Silmaril).
“Earendel was aligned on or very near a ripple in the fabric of space created by [galaxy cluster WHL0137-08’s] mass, which magnified its light enough to be detected by Hubble,” NASA said in a March 30 press release. In fact, we might’ve missed the star had it been positioned elsewhere—it took a serendipitous combination of the Hubble telescope’s ultra high-tech tools and the gravitational lensing caused by WHL0137-08 to create the natural magnifying glass that helped us spot Earendel.
This cosmic wonder beats out the previous record-holder for furthest known star—a gigantic blue star dubbed “Icarus,” which formed around 9.4 billion years ago and shined brightly for approximately four billion years post-Big Bang. Don’t confuse Earendel with Methuselah, either; Hubble discovered that star in 2013 and it currently holds the record for being the oldest known star at about 14.5 billion years old.