More than halfway across the universe, an enormous blue star nicknamed Icarus is the farthest individual star ever seen. Normally, it would be much too faint to view, even with the world’s largest telescopes. But through a quirk of nature that tremendously amplifies the star’s feeble glow, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope were able to pinpoint this faraway star and set a new distance record. They also used Icarus to test one theory of dark matter, and to probe the make-up of a foreground galaxy cluster.
The star, harbored in a very distant spiral galaxy, is so far away that its light has taken 9 billion years to reach Earth. It appears to us as it did when the universe was about 30 percent of its current age.
Icarus, whose official name is MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star 1, is the farthest individual star ever seen. It is only visible because it is being magnified by the gravity of a massive galaxy cluster, located about 5 billion light-years from Earth. Called MACS J1149+2223, this cluster, shown at left, sits between Earth and the galaxy that contains the distant star. The panels at the right show the view in 2011, without Icarus visible, compared with the star’s brightening in 2016.
The discovery of Icarus through gravitational lensing has initiated a new way for astronomers to study individual stars in distant galaxies. These observations provide a rare, detailed look at how stars evolve, especially the most luminous stars.
“This is the first time we’re seeing a magnified, individual star,” explained former University of California at Berkeley postdoc and study leader Patrick Kelly now of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “You can see individual galaxies out there, but this star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions.”
Gravity as a Natural Cosmic Lens
The cosmic quirk that makes this star visible is a phenomenon called “gravitational lensing.” Gravity from a foreground, massive cluster of galaxies acts as a natural lens in space, bending and amplifying light. Sometimes light from a single background object appears as multiple images. The light can be highly magnified, making extremely faint and distant objects bright enough to see.
In the case of Icarus, a natural “magnifying glass” is created by a galaxy cluster called MACS J1149+2223. Located about 5 billion light-years from Earth, this massive cluster of galaxies sits between the Earth and the galaxy that contains the distant star. By combining the strength of this gravitational lens with Hubble’s exquisite resolution and sensitivity, astronomers can see and study Icarus.