A hydrogen signal was detected in a galaxy more than five billion light-years away, smashing the previous record of the most distant hydrogen gas signal found. Judging from the gas it emits, the international team of scientists believe that this galaxy must contain billions of young colossal stars surrounded by hydrogen gas clouds.

This hydrogen signal provides a glimpse of the galaxy’s past. Since it took five billion years to reach us, the hydrogen probably turned into stars which then turned into supernovae. The galaxy must also be nothing like it was billions of years ago.

Still, the analysis of the galaxy’s hydrogen can provide insight into its evolution, makeup and how the gas in it transformed all throughout history. The team used the Very Large Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico in the US.

While hydrogen signals have been detected before, the old radio telescopes used were insufficient in size and hardware, limiting hydrogen gas detection to only in galaxies close to ours. Now, the current hydrogen signal is double the distance of the previous record-holder, largely due to the enhancements to the Very Large Array.

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Artist’s impression of the gas cloud and galaxy. Credit: ICRAR/Peter Ryan

“For this project we took tens of terabytes of data from the Very Large Array, and then processed it using Amazon’s cloud-based servers to create an enormous image cube, ready for our team to analyze and explore,” explains team member Attila Popping from the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research and the ARC Center of All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) in Australia.

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Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy with overlay of the hydrogen emission that was recently discovered. Credit: Fernández et al, NRAO/AUI/NSF, NASA

According to Andreas Wicenec, the Data Intensive Astronomy team head at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research, they are constructing systems to handle data from upgraded radio telescopes from around the globe. This includes the Square Kilometer Array and its pathfinder in Western Australia, as well as the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in China.