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JWST Reveals Stunning New Details of Earendel, the Most Distant Known Star

Earendel is massive, hot, bright, and literally older than the hills.

By Cassidy Ward

Astronomy and space exploration are exercises of finding horizons and then pushing beyond them. When we built the first telescopes and discovered other worlds, the horizon became the solar system. When we realized those lights in the night sky were other suns, it became the galaxy. And eventually we realized that even the Milky Way was just one in a gargantuan (possibly endless) sea of galaxies. Likewise, when the Wright brothers first untethered themselves from the ground, it was only a matter of time (and not very much) before we would leave the planet entirely. The crew of SYFY's The Ark (streaming now on Peacock) is doing what we will very likely inevitably do ourselves: traveling to a world around another star.

How to Watch

Catch up on The Ark on Peacock or the SYFY app.

Sadly, we haven’t yet figured out the sorts of propulsion systems needed to make that sort of trip in a reasonable amount of time, but we have continued making telescopes capable of peering deeper into the cosmos. Recently, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) snapped a picture of Earendel, the oldest, most distant star known.

Discovery of the Most Distant Known Star

Earendel was first detected by the Hubble Space Telescope in March 2022, when it broke the record for the oldest and most distant star ever observed. Astronomers estimated Earendel at 12.9 billion years old, meaning it existed during the first billion years of the universe’s existence. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t be able to see a star that old and that far away, let alone learn new details about it, but we are able to thanks to a fortuitous combination of technology and nature.

RELATED: What Can the Oldest Star Ever Seen Tell us About How Stars Were Born?

JWST’s impressive suite of instruments gets us part of the way, but gravitational lensing takes us home. See, Earendel is a single star inside a distant galaxy, which is located directly behind the galaxy cluster WHL0137-08. The collective gravity of the cluster warps spacetime, bending light as if through a magnificent cosmic lens. Astronomers estimate that light from Earendel is magnified roughly 4,000 times, giving it a much needed signal boost on its way to Earth.

When astronomers first discovered the star in 2022, they gave it the name Earendel (meaning Morning Star) to signify its presence near the dawn of the universe. However, the distance of Earendel also pushed much of its light into redder parts of the spectrum, where Hubble can’t see. At the time, astronomers noted the discovery would be confirmed and more information uncovered with future observations by JWST. Now, those observations have come.

A Closer Look at Earendel with JWST

Earendel the Star

Using its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), JWST focused in on WHL0137-08 and the stretched out Sunrise Arc galaxy — home of Earendel — smeared out around it. You can find the Sunrise Arc in the above image by following the diffraction spike pointing down and to the right.

The data from JWST confirmed that Earendel is indeed incredibly far away, huge, and incredibly bright. Based on the updated measurements, Earendel is believed to have been about twice as hot as the Sun and a million times as bright. Closer to home, stars as massive as Earendel usually have binary partners hanging around nearby.

RELATED: JWST May Have Found Dark Matter Stars in the Early Universe

Astronomers assumed they wouldn’t be able to decipher a stellar partner, if any existed, because of how far away Earendel is and how close together, relatively, the two stars would be.

However, JWST is capable not only of seeing Earendel, but also of peering into its color spectrum to get information about what it’s made of. There, astronomers found hints of a cooler, redder companion star hanging around nearby. It’s that astronomical equivalent of detecting an affair by the lipstick on your (ex) partner’s collar.

In addition to snooping on Earendel, JWST found evidence of star-forming regions inside the Sunrise Arc as well as a number of older star clusters. Astronomers will continue to investigate the data they’ve retrieved, in the hope of learning more about the formation and evolution of the earliest stars in our universe.

See another star for yourself with the crew of The Ark, streaming now on Peacock!