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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 March, 2004, 12:08 GMT
Telescope probes far off galaxy
Abell 1835 IR1916, Eso
The VLT observation picks up the very faint object on the edge of the Universe
The Very Large Telescope has seen the most distant point in the cosmos yet observed by any astronomical facility.

The VLT, which is sited in Chile, has pictured a small cluster of stars that are about 13.2 billion light-years from Earth.

The galaxy is being seen at a time when the Universe was just 470 million years old, which is barely 3% of its current age.

The Swiss and French astronomers behind the discovery say they may be looking at some of the very first stars to shine after the creation of the cosmos.

Their announcement comes barely two weeks after US astronomers had seen a galaxy blazing a mere 750 million years after the Big Bang.

To make their observations, both teams used what is known as a "gravitational lens" - a massive foreground object that can bend and magnify the light of objects much further away.

This is a remarkable astronomical trick, first predicted by Einstein, which allows scientists to probe regions of the Universe that are estimated to be 13 billion light-years away.

In the case of Roser Pelló and Daniel Schaerer and their European team, the lens was cluster of galaxies named Abell 1835.

It enabled them to zoom in on the far more distant clutch of stars which has now been designated Abell 1835 IR1916.

The VLT, Eso
The VLT facility has four 8m telescopes
Its light was analysed to work out its so-called redshift, which measures the degree to which the light from its stars is being stretched by the expansion of the Universe.

The greater the redshift, the more distant the object and the earlier it is being seen in cosmic history.

The VLT's images of Abell 1835 IR1916 suggest it has a redshift of 10 - the first time the 10 classification has been given to any object.

Astronomers are now getting closer to what they term as the "Dark Ages", the time in the Universe's history when hydrogen and helium atoms had formed but had yet to come together to form the first stars.

Scientists want to see the "Cosmic Renaissance" - the time of first ignition - and the European team believes it has come very close.

"What we are observing here are the very first moments of the Universe," Schaerer, of the University of Geneva, said.

"This discovery opens the way to future explorations of the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe," he added.

The VLT is part of the Paranal Observatory which sits atop the 2,635m-high Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert.

It is operated by the European Southern Observatory, a 10-member state organisation for astronomical research based near Munich, Germany.

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