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Astronomers have discovered one of the most luminous objects ever seen, a massive body that may be a giant galaxy formed shortly after the big bang thought to have created the universe.

But scientists said the object also could be an energetic quasar hidden in a dust cloud and that more data is needed to determine the precise nature of the body, according to a report in the British journal Nature.The enigmatic object emits huge amounts of energy - about 300 trillion times more than the sun and 30,000 more than the entire Milky Way Galaxy, the researchers said.

"In either case this is a remarkable object, and the presence of a large amount of dust in an object of such high (infrared emission) implies the generation of heavy elements at an early cosmological epoch, " the scientists wrote.

Because of its distance from the Earth - 16 billion light years - and the fact that it emits most of its energy in the infrared spectrum, the object is barely visible to the human eye.

A light year is the distance light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, covers in a year. By that yardstick, the newly discovered object is so far away that the radiation detected now was emitted 16 billion years ago.

Michael Rowan-Robinson of London's Queen Mary and Westfield College reported that the object was discovered while his team was peering through a telescope in the Canary Islands.

The universe is believed to be no more than about 20 billion years old. Because of its distance from Earth, the object in question is some 80 percent of the way back to the theoretical big bang that scientists believe created the cosmos.

If the object is a galaxy in the process of developing, the find would be very important because it would mark the first such star swarm ever found from that early epoch in the history of the universe, said Andy Lawson, a member of the team.

"Nobody has ever found one, and it has become the Holy Grail of astronomy," he said. "My view is that it is more likely to be a quasar inside a cloud of dust."