ScienceDaily (Nov. 15, 2012) — By combining the power of NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and one of nature's own natural "zoom lenses" in space, astronomers have set a new record for finding the most distant galaxy seen in the universe.

The farthest galaxy appears as a diminutive blob that is only a tiny fraction of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. But it offers a peek back into a time when the universe was 3 percent of its present age of 13.7 billion years. The newly discovered galaxy, named MACS0647-JD, was observed 420 million years after the big bang, the theorized beginning of the universe. Its light has traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth.

This find is the latest discovery from a program that uses natural zoom lenses to reveal distant galaxies in the early universe. The Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH), an international group led by Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., is using massive galaxy clusters as cosmic telescopes to magnify distant galaxies behind them. This effect is called gravitational lensing.

Along the way, 8 billion years into its journey, light from MACS0647-JD took a detour along multiple paths around the massive galaxy cluster MACS J0647+7015. Without the cluster's magnification powers, astronomers would not have seen this remote galaxy. Because of gravitational lensing, the CLASH research team was able to observe three magnified images of MACS0647-JD with the Hubble telescope. The cluster's gravity boosted the light from the faraway galaxy, making the images appear about eight, seven, and two times brighter than they otherwise would that enabled astronomers to detect the galaxy more efficiently and with greater confidence.