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Hubble sets new mark for farthest-out galaxy

Image: GN-z11
This image locates galaxy GN-z11 in the northern hemisphere field of the Hubble GOODS survey, which takes in tens of thousands of galaxies stretching far back into time. GN-z11, shown in the inset, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the big bang, when the universe was only 3 percent of its current age. (Credit: NASA / ESA / Oesch et al.)

Like the rockers in “This Is Spinal Tap,” astronomers cranked the dials on the Hubble Space Telescope up to 11 to identify what they say is the farthest-out galaxy ever detected, from a time when the universe was a mere 400 million years old.

The light from the galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major, known as GN-z11, was sent out 13.4 billion years ago, astronomers report in a study to be published in theAstrophysical Journal. That light-year measurement surpasses the distances that were recorded for two faraway galaxies over the past year.

The researchers say this record is likely to stand until NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope comes online.

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble,” Yale astronomer Pascal Oesch said in a news release.

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There’s no evidence we live in a hologram … yet

Image: Holometer
A Fermilab scientist works on the laser beams at the heart of the Holometer experiment. The Holometer uses twin laser interferometers to look for evidence of quantum jitters. (Credit: Reidar Hahn / Fermilab)

Is our universe a two-dimensional hologram? It sounds like science fiction straight from “The Matrix,” but scientists are checking out the hypothesis for real. So far, the answer is no.

The experiments are being conducted at Fermilab in Illinois, using a gnarly-looking device known as the Holometer. The apparatus is designed to measure the smoothness of spacetime at lengths down to a billionth of a billionth of a meter. Put another way, that’s a thousand times smaller than the size of a proton.

The standard view is that the fabric of reality is continuous – but some theories propose that spacetime is pixelated, like a digital image. If that’s the case, there’s a built-in limit to the “resolution” of reality.

The Holometer uses a pair of high-power laser interferometers to look for tiny discontinuities in movements that last only a millionth of a second. Such discontinuities would provide evidence of holographic noise, or quantum jitters, in spacetime.

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General relativity gets a 100th birthday party

Image: Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein works at the blackboard during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. (F. Schmutzer via Wikipedia)

This week’s 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is a geeky cause for celebration, but what’s arguably the concept’s toughest test has just gotten under way.

General relativity was a follow-up to special relativity, Einstein’s big idea from a decade earlier. Back in 1905, he worked out a way to explain why the speed of light is constant, regardless of an observer’s point of view: It’s because space and time are not inflexible metrics, but interrelated dimensions that are measured differently depending on your perspective.

Special relativity explained a lot of the weirdness that physicists were puzzling over at the time, but the theory applied only to “special” conditions that didn’t involve acceleration – for example, how things fall in a gravitational field. On Nov. 25, 1915, Einstein laid out how the interplay of space and time gives rise to gravity and the fabric of the cosmos.

The theory passed its first big test in 1919, when observations during a total solar eclipse were found to be more consistent with Einstein’s view of gravity than with Isaac Newton’s. General relativity has been passing tests ever since. For example, if we didn’t take relativistic effects into account, our GPS readings would seem out of whack.

This week is prime time for centennial retrospectives on the theory and its implications. Here are a few to keep you entertained.

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‘Origins’ concert sets the Big Bang to music

Image: Big Bang
An artist’s conception shows two “branes” colliding in multidimensional space, creating the Big Bang that gave rise to our own universe 13.8 billion years ago. (Animation by Deep Sky Studios)

The Big Bang never looked, or sounded, so good: The piece de resistance for this week’s SpaceFest in Seattle is a symphonic review of 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, from its expansive beginnings to an unpredictable sonic wave of emergent behavior.

Most of the SpaceFest events take place at the Museum of Flight, but the capper is a concert titled “Origins: Life in the Universe,” unfolding at Benaroya Hall at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“The whole focus is to blow people away with the beauty of astronomy,” said scientist-composer Glenna Burmer, one of the prime movers for “Origins.”

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