Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… last weekend, the James Webb Space Telescope managed to capture images of Earendel, the most distant star in the universe. Hence, we’ll be looking at 1) what the latest Webb imagery reveals about this distant stellar formation, 2) the unique origins of the star’s name, and 3) how it compares to other discoveries by Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
Quote of the Week:
“The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons.”
Meanwhile, in video news, Chrissy Newton recently sat down with Beatriz Villaroel, a scientist who proposes a novel way of searching for evidence of non-terrestrial artifacts that aliens might have placed in orbit around our planet prior to the dawn of the space age. Also, why are some stars apparently vanishing? Chrissy explores all these questions in the latest installment of Rebelliously Curious. You can check out more from Chrissy and the team over on our YouTube Channel, and as always, a complete lineup of all our recent stories and news coverage can be found at the end of this newsletter.
But for now, it’s time we take a look back in time to a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… and the mythic origins behind the name of one of the universe’s most distant stars.
Webb Spots the Most Distant Star in the Universe
In its latest newsworthy achievement, the James Webb Space Telescope has produced images of Earendel, the most distant known star in the universe. The images arrived following the announcement of the star’s discovery earlier this year by Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
According to NASA, the enigmatic Earendel “is so far away that its light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach Earth,” giving astronomers a glimpse at how it looked when the universe was less than a tenth of its current age. Previously, the smallest objects that have been observed at comparable distances were entire clusters of stars that astronomers believe to be embedded within some of the universe’s earliest galaxies.
The discovery was made with the help of gravitational lensing observed in deep field imagery obtained by Hubble, and due to its great distance, Earendel appears only faintly in the new Webb images.
Named after a character in The Silmarillion, a prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series The Lord of the Rings, the star’s name (and that of Tolkien’s character) is actually derived from the Old English variant Ēarendel. This is itself a derivative of Aurvandill, a Norse mythological figure whose toe, according to legend, was tossed into the sky by the god Thor to become the star Aurvandils-tá.
Although the association with stars is already obvious, a deeper look at the etymology of the name reveals that the Old English word Ēarendel has even more stellar associations. It was often associated with such concepts as “rising light,” with some translations equating to “radiance [or] morning star,” or similarly as “dawn” or “ray of light,” according to John Lindow, the renowned scholar of Norse Mythology.
Not to stray too far into the weeds here, but other interpretations drawing directly from the Old Norse include the interpretation of the prefix aur as being concomitant with aura in Proto-Germanic; unlike its use in modern English (which would have been appropriate for consideration in naming a star), aura in this ancient context instead meant “mud” or “gravel.”
In short, while Earendel’s unique name evokes imagery from ancient mythology, its actual name, as designated by astronomers, is the less mythic-sounding WHL0137-LS.
Oldest of Old, and New Insights
Earendel, while the most distant star currently logged by astronomers, is not the oldest. This title is still held by the appropriately named Methuselah, one of Hubble’s earlier discoveries from 2013, named after the grandfather of the biblical Noah, who was said to have lived a whopping 969 years.
Although Webb is expected to begin making record-breaking discoveries of its own in the years ahead, it still has a ways to go before it will catch up to Hubble, which also lays claim to the discovery of the most distant galaxy, whose light required 13.4 billion years to reach Hubble’s field of view.
“We’re excited to share the first JWST image of Earendel, the most distant star known in our universe, lensed and magnified by a massive galaxy cluster,” the Tweet read.
“Earendel existed so long ago that it may not have had all the same raw materials as the stars around us today,” said Bryan Welch, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore back in May.
“Studying Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with,” Welch said, who likened such discoveries to “reading a really interesting book, but we started with the second chapter, and now we will have a chance to see how it all got started.” With little doubt, over the course of its time in use, the James Webb Space Telescope will continue to provide us even finer detailed imagery of such discoveries, helping to sharpen the focus of our current cosmological perspectives on the past.