A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…so the story goes

This time the story is about a galaxy of a billion stars that is allegedly seen from a time only 402 million years after the big bang. The galaxy is called GN-z11 because it supposedly has a redshift of 11.1,1 measured with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). That is the highest redshift assigned to any galaxy to date, and according to big bang cosmology it corresponds to a distance of about 13.4 billion light-years. It allegedly extends the time of observation of the universe back a further 150 million years than previously known. It also places the epoch of this galaxy in the period of predicted formation of a huge number of stars and galaxy formation built from these first stars formed after the alleged big bang.2


Figure 1: That blurry image is of a galaxy so far away it dates closer to the Big Bang, from a time when the universe was a mere toddler of about 400 million years old (so reads the caption from Ref. 6) . Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute via AP.

In a new analysis of the publicly available CANDELS data3 over the GOODS fields,4 a team of astronomers, with lead author Oesch,1 identified six relatively bright galaxies with best-fit photometric redshifts z = 9.2—10.2.  But photometric redshift determinations are very model dependent and not so conclusive, so they chose the intrinsically brightest of them for 12 orbit passes of the HST, to collect grism5 spectroscopic data and more accurately measure its redshift. This galaxy (now called GN-z11) was previously labelled GN-z10-1. It was previously given a photometric redshift zphot = 10.2. It has strong emission in the infrared consistent with a very bright ultra-violet galaxy after taking in to account stretching of the source optical wavelengths down to the infrared. See Fig. 1.

The authors in their paper write:1

GN-z11 is remarkably and unexpectedly luminous for a galaxy at such an early time:

It is about three times brighter than expected for the time of its alleged existence only 400 million years after the big bang. Early in the alleged big bang history, the first stars were supposed to have formed into small nondescript galaxies. They are meant to have many ‘young’ stars but since the galaxies are not meant to be very large it also follows that they should not be very bright. They’re expected to have grown large later by mergers with other galaxies, where galaxy size is correlated with its intrinsic brightness. In this case the GN-z11 galaxy has the intrinsic brightness of a galaxy observed at a redshift near z = 7, at a time when the big bang universe is three times larger. Thus it follows that the only galaxy they have identified at the epoch of 400 million years after the big bang is three times brighter than galaxies when the universe is allegedly much older and when galaxies should be much larger and hence brighter. This means “galaxy evolution” has worked too fast on this newly discovered galaxy. It is the opposite of what is expected.

Is the measurement solid?

Not all astronomers agree with the finding. In relation to this discovery The Associated Press reported on March 3, 2016:6

“Competing astronomer Richard Ellis at the European Southern Observatory, who found the previous farthest galaxy, was skeptical. He said the light signatures used by Oesch’s teams are ‘noisier and harder to interpret’ and may overlap with competing nearby stars or galaxies. And for GN-z11 to be that visible it would have to be three times brighter than typical galaxies, he said in an email.”

Before this only a small sample of galaxies with redshifts z = 9 to 11 had been identified as candidates by the same team. That means that they still needed to have their redshifts confirmed by a spectrographic technique. I have previously pointed out some problems with those galaxies and the use of galaxy evolution as a ‘knob’ that can be conveniently turned to get the observations to fit the theory.7

The previously confirmed highest redshift was 8.68, and when standard big bang cosmology, including assuming dark matter and dark energy, is applied, it puts it about 580 million years after the big bang. That, according to theory, is around the peak of star and galaxy formation, the so-called era of reionization, when the light from the newly born stars ionizes the neutral hydrogen in the intergalactic medium. See Fig. 2.

For a long time, competing teams of astronomers were just trying to reach a redshift of 9, to ‘see’ into this period of galaxy building, meaning to a period less than about 550 million years after the big bang.

Figure 1: Cosmic timeline illustrated showing redshift across the top, and ‘lookback’ time to the big bang along the bottom. Credit: m.caltech.edu/file/6861

Figure 2: Big bang cosmology timeline showing redshift across the top, and ‘lookback’ time to the big bang along the bottom. Credit: m.caltech.edu/file/6861

New technique used

The breakthrough came about with the use of the grism spectrometer. However, Oesch et al. note that,

One major challenge in slitless grism spectroscopy is the systematic contamination of the target spectrum by light from nearby galaxies.1

To address this, Oesch et al. applied a new method to extract a usable spectrum from the contaminating light of nearby galaxies in the field of view of their grism spectrometer.

The principal goal of our grism program was to unequivocally exclude a lower redshift solution for the source GN-z11.1

GNz11 Fig3

Figure 3: Grism Spectrum of GN-z11. The top panel shows the (negative) 2D spectrum from the data of 12 orbits with the target trace outlined by the dark red lines. For clarity the 2D spectrum was smoothed by a Gaussian indicated by the ellipse in the lower right corner. The bottom panel is the un-smoothed 1D flux density using an optimal extraction rebinned to one resolution element of the G141 grism (93 angstroms). The black dots show the same data further binned to 560 angstroms (smoothed average of the noisy data), while the light blue line shows the contamination level that was subtracted from the original object spectrum. They identified a characteristic continuum break in the spectrum at 1.47 ± 0:01 μm. The continuum break is how they determined the shifted spectrum to get a redshift of z_grism = 11.09±0.08. The red line reflects the Lyman-α continuum break in the spectrum at this redshift, normalized to the measured H-band flux of GN-z11. The fact that they only detect significant flux along the trace of the target source, which is also consistent with the measured H-band magnitude, is argued to be strong evidence that they have indeed detected the continuum of GN-z11 rather than any residual contamination.

They acknowledge that the target is contaminated by light from galaxies that are nearby on the sky, not necessarily nearby physically. And looking at the results of the extracted data compared to the contaminating noise, shown here as Fig. 3 (from their Fig. 5), one might be forgiven for believing that the extraction of a robust spectrum, upon which the redshift of 11.1 was determined, might be open to other interpretations.

Oesch said the team made sure “this was as clean as possible a measurement” with little contamination. He said the technique they used is starting to become standard.6

But so was adding epicycles to the alleged geocentric solar system to maintain the failing Ptolemaic paradigm.8

But [authors] Oesch, Brammer and Illingworth said not to expect new discoveries farther and older than this one, because they have pushed Hubble to its limit. Only when the next NASA space telescope is launched and operating, probably in 2019, will astronomers see farther.6

This is a reference to the launch of the next generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to vastly accelerate the imaging of galaxies in the alleged era of reionization and the spectrographic measurement of their redshifts.

The big bang story must be retained

Back to our story!

Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov at Harvard, who wasn’t part of the research, called the discovery exciting and interesting: “Seeing and understanding the first galaxies and the first stars is an essential part of our origins story.”6 (emphasis added)

Understanding the parameters that define the galaxy is so important for the big bang story. The image in Fig. 1 appears darkish red and indistinct. If its light has been redshifted by a factor z = 11.1 that means the wavelengths have been stretched longer by a factor of 12 times, during the time it took the light to travel from far far away to be received in the Hubble Space Telescope. The wavelengths were shifted to the very red end of the spectrum. That means ultra-violet light (UV) becomes red light and the galaxy appears red to earth observers. Astronomers then calculate what the galaxy should look like in its own rest frame (when no stretching of its light has occurred) and the result here is that it should be very hot, burning a bright blue colour, which allegedly indicates it has a lot of UV radiation. And according to standard star formation theory that means many new stars are rapidly forming.

Their calculations indicate that somewhere between 14 and 34 stars the size of the sun are being formed per year in GN-z11. But this calculation is highly dependent on cosmology and knowing what is called the luminosity function, which is a method of calculating how bright these galaxies should be, or how many of a certain brightness are expected to be found at a certain redshift. (In addition, this does not even deal with the problem of star formation itself.9,10)

Knowing how bright they should be at a certain epoch depends on both their redshift (hence the choice of cosmology) and their stage of ‘galaxy evolution’ (how many stars and what stage of development they are in). This is story telling at its best.7

Measuring such a function depends on knowing what you cannot observe. It depends on what is called cosmic variance, the unknown density variations in the cosmos.11

That is a problem. The application of the standard ΛCDM big bang cosmology may not be correct because we know of anomalies in the redshifts of very large redshift objects that add doubt to the standard cosmological expansion explanation.12 However, all challenges to the standard interpretation must be vigorously rejected by big bang cosmologists, otherwise it could potentially place this galaxy GN-z11 not at its redshift distance and hence not 400 million years after the big bang.

The late Halton Arp spent a lifetime documenting redshift anomalies especially with high redshift sources called quasars, and also active galactic nuclei (AGNs).13,14 His line of evidence could be interpreted to mean that the modern Hubble-law-like redshift-distance relationship has been misinterpreted and thus incorrectly places the highest redshift objects at the greatest distances. Possibly the best single example highlighting Arp’s hypothesis, which undermines the standard cosmology’s interpretation, is found in a relatively low redshift (z = 0.022) spiral galaxy NGC 7319 with a very high redshift (z = 2.11) quasar only 8 arc minutes from its centre.15 The quasar is in front of the low-redshift galaxy so it cannot be more than 360 million—not billions—of light-years distant. High redshift AGNs have the same problem and this new galaxy may be such an example.

It is the anomalies and inconsistencies that are the most important in science, since:16

  1. science can’t prove anything to be true but only provide data that are consistent with a hypothesis, or, inconsistent with it, and,
  2. observations that are inconsistent with a hypothesis, in effect, disprove it and thus the hypothesis must be discarded and a different hypothesis proposed.

The interpretation of the brightness in ultraviolet radiation coming from this allegedly high redshift galaxy GN-z11 this presents new problems, which will mean, at the very least, some frenetic rewriting of the hypothesis, but like the grand paradigm of evolution, the big bang paradigm will undoubtedly be retained.

“It really is star-bursting,” Brammer said. “We’re getting closer and closer to when we think the first stars formed… There’s not a lot of actual time between this galaxy and the Big Bang.”6

But this presents a problem….time, which is insufficient in their theory.

If we were back in time and near this galaxy (named GN-z11), we’d see ‘blue, stunning, really bright young stars’ and all around us would be ‘very messy looking objects’ that are galaxies just forming, not the large bright spirals we think of as galaxies, said study co-author Garth Illingworth at the University of California Santa Cruz.6

This is more of a statement of faith, associated with a belief in that big bang story. Assuming that more galaxies are eventually imaged with spectroscopic redshifts of greater than z = 11 there are very specific predictions from the big bang story that must be fulfilled.

Potentially problematic predictions

Galaxy formation allegedly started at the beginning of the era of reionization (dotted line labelled Hubble 2012 in Fig. 2). The first stars allegedly formed before that at a redshift of 20 or greater. The period of most galaxy formation followed that, as the story goes, between the time when galaxies had a redshift of about 12 and lasted until the time when their redshift was about 8 as shown in Fig. 2 (between the dotted lines).7 That corresponds to between 300 and 700 million years after the big bang.

That means astronomers would have to identify some population III stars (containing no metals),2 which according to standard cosmology are located in galaxies that are less than 400 million years old, and hence with measured spectroscopic redshifts greater than z = 11. That requirement assumes that there is some validity in the redshift-distance relationship which requires assumptions on the correct cosmology, which nowadays has led to many absurdities like dark matter, dark energy and many other fudge factors.17

This is then an exciting time for astronomy and it will get an enormously more exciting once the James Webb Space Telescope (JW ST) begins operation around 2019. Oesch et al. state that,

Until JWST, however, GN-z11 is quite likely to remain the most distant confirmed source.1

You can see from Fig. 3 how difficult it is to make a definitive redshift measurement on galaxies like this, where light contamination from nearby galaxies (on the sky) is a real problem, and where even the experts themselves are skeptical. So assuming the Lyman continuum break18 (in the spectroscopic technique used here) has been correctly identified and is a valid interpretation of the observations, how much more difficult would it be to identify redshifts much greater than z = 11, where galaxies made from the first stars—population III—are predicted to be observed? Besides there is no independent method of verifying these redshifts. Spectroscopic redshifts of most lower-redshift galaxies are determined using more than a few well-known spectral lines, and thus a robust measurement is obtained.

Already this discovery has provided a new challenge:

The above estimates illustrate that our discovery of the unexpectedly luminous galaxy GN-z11 may challenge our current understanding of galaxy build-up at z > 8.1


I could make a prediction that the astronomers will run out of time. As they ‘push back’ to higher and higher redshifts, where they interpret them to be at an epoch closer to the big bang, they will find still many galaxies with metals—that is, not population III as predicted2 but population II and I stars—and with morphologies that are reminiscent of the galaxies at much lower redshifts. This will be at complete odds with the standard story.

The big bang story will need to be changed … again.

The Apostle Paul was inspired when he wrote:

For the unseen things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things made, both His eternal power and divinity, for them to be without excuse. Romans 1:20, KJ3.

References and Notes

  1. P.A. Oesch et al., A remarkably luminous galaxy at z = 11.1 measured with Hubble Space Telescope grism spectroscopy, in press, Astrophysical J., March 3, 2016; preprint, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1603.00461v1.pdf
  2. J.G. Hartnett, Have Population III stars finally been discovered? March 3, 2016
  3. Cosmic Assembly Near-IR Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS) is deep imaging of nearly 250,000 galaxies in the near infrared part of the spectrum with the Hubble Space Telescope.
  4. The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS) unites extremely deep observations from NASA’s Great Observatories, SpitzerHubble, and Chandra, ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton, and from the most powerful ground-based facilities, to survey the distant universe to the faintest flux limits across the electromagnetic spectrum.
  5. Grism slitless spectrometer (Grism = grating on a prism).
  6. Seth Borenstein, Astronomers discover galaxy so far away its bursting stars date from when the earth was just a toddler, The Associated Press, March 3, 2016
  7. J.G. Hartnett, Is there definitive evidence for an expanding universe? August 19, 2014
  8. In the Ptolemaic systems of astronomy, the epicycle (from Ancient Greek: ἐπίκυκλος, literally meaning ‘on the circle’ has a circle moving on another circle) was a geometric model used to explain the variations in speed and direction of the apparent motion of the moon, sun, and planets. Mars particularly was problematic when it was seen to turn and move in the opposite direction in its alleged orbit around the earth. Indeed epicycles actually had good predictive power but they were flawed nevertheless.
  9. J.G. Hartnett, Stars just don’t form naturally—‘dark matter’ the ‘god of the gaps’ is needed, September 1, 2015.
  10. J.G. Hartnett, Giant molecular clouds, March 15, 2016.
  11. J.G. Hartnett, The largest structure in the observable universe, or cosmic variance? creation.com, June 19, 2014.
  12. J.G. Hartnett, The heavens declare a different story! Journal of Creation 17(2):94–97, August 2003.
  13. J.G. Hartnett, Quasar redshifts blast big bang, November 1, 2014.
  14. J.G. Hartnett, Quasar-galaxy associations, January 1, 2014.
  15. J.G. Hartnett, Halton Arp—Big-bang-defying giant passes away, December 31, 2013.
  16. C.L. Bennett, Science Title Misstep, (PDF available at http://www.psych.nyu.edu/carrascolab/people/Science-2011-Carmel-1262.pdf), “THE TITLE OF THE 6 MAY NEWS OF THE WEEK story ‘At long last, Gravity Probe B satellite proves Einstein right’ (p. 649) made me cringe. I find myself frequently repeating to students and the public that science doesn’t ‘prove’ theories. Scientific measurements can only disprove theories or be consistent with them. Any theory that is consistent with measurements could be disproved by a future measurement. I wouldn’t have expected Science magazine, of all places, to say a theory was ‘proved.’” CHARLES L. BENNETT, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA. E-mail: cbennett@jhu.edu. This is followed by Colin Norman, Science News Editor’s Response: ‘Bennett is completely correct. It’s an important conceptual point, and we blew it.’
  17. J.G. Hartnett, Big Bang fudge factors, December 24, 2013.
  18. The Lyman-break galaxy selection technique relies on the idea (a belief, since it cannot be tested) that radiation at higher energies than the Lyman limit at 912 Å is almost completely absorbed by neutral gas around star-forming regions of galaxies. In the rest frame of the emitting galaxy, the emitted spectrum is bright at wavelengths longer than 912 Å, but very dim at shorter wavelengths—this is known as a “break”, which is then used to find the position of the Lyman limit. Light with a wavelength shorter than 912 Å is in the far-ultraviolet range and is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, but for very distant galaxies the wavelengths of light are assumed to be stretched due to the alleged expansion of the universe. For a galaxy at redshift z = 3, the Lyman break will appear to be at wavelengths of about 3600 Å, which is long enough to be detected by ground-based or space-based telescopes, hence all redshifts z > 3 should be detectable by this technique.

Additional Reading