WHEATON, Ill. - Wheaton native Brian Welch, 27, has discovered the oldest, furthest known star in the universe, NASA announced.
It's a 12.9 billion-year-old star believed to be 50 times the mass of the Sun and born some 900 million years after the Big Bang.
"Originally when I was growing up I thought I was going to be a famous football player," said Welch. "I didn't think an astrophysics discovery was going to be what got me 15 minutes of fame. It's a fun twist."
Welch played tight end at football powerhouse Wheaton Warrenville South.
He is now a Ph.D. candidate in Astrophysics at Johns Hopkins, where he made the discovery while researching distant galaxies.
"The star that we found is just about 900 million years after the Big Bang, so we're seeing the universe basically as it was when it was just seven percent of its current age," said Welch.
Welch's discovery happened as he was scouring images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Magnified light from a distant galaxy made up a long red arc in one image. Inside that arc, he saw a tiny, tiny dot which caught his eye.
"It seemed too good to be true, so we had to go back and double check, triple check, quadruple check and make sure that what we were seeing was actually what we were thinking we were seeing," Welch said.
Once dozens of other researchers confirmed it was indeed a star, Welch got the honor of naming it.
He chose "Earendel" which means "Morning Star," a reference to it being one of the first lights to shine at the dawn of the universe.
"It's incredibly fortunate for me to have stumbled on to this," Welch said.
Welch says the next step from here is to learn more about Earendel using the James Webb Space Telescope, which is even more powerful than the Hubble.
Not surprisingly, he already has a job lined up at NASA.