New View of Distant Galaxy Reveals Furious Star Formation

Dec 18, 2007
New View of Distant Galaxy Reveals Furious Star Formation
These photos in visible light (left, from the Hubble Space Telescope) and infrared (right, from the Spitzer Space Telescope) show the location of distant galaxy GOOD 850-5 (circled). That galaxy, located 12 billion light-years from Earth, is forming stars at the prodigious rate of 4,000 Suns per year, a thousand times faster than our Milky Way. Credit: Wang et al., STScI, Spitzer, NASA, NRAO/AUI/NSF

A furious rate of star formation discovered in a distant galaxy shows that galaxies in the early universe developed either much faster or in a different way from what astronomers have thought.

"This galaxy is forming stars at an incredible rate," said Wei-Hao Wang, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico. The galaxy, Wang said, is forming the equivalent of 4,000 Suns a year. This is a thousand times more violent than our own Milky Way galaxy.

The galaxy, called GOODS 850-5, is 12 billion light-years from Earth, and thus is seen as it was only about 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. Wang and his colleagues observed it using the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Submillimeter Array (SMA) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Young stars in the galaxy were enshrouded in dust that was heated by the stars and radiated infrared light strongly. Because of the galaxy's great distance from Earth, the infrared light waves have been stretched out to submillimeter-length radio waves, which are seen by the SMA. The waves were stretched or "redshifted," as astronomers say, by the ongoing expansion of the Universe.

"This evidence for prolific star formation is hidden by the dust from visible-light telescopes," Wang explained. The dust, in turn, was formed from heavy elements that had to be built up in the cores of earlier stars. This indicates, Wang said, that significant numbers of stars already had formed, then spewed those heavy elements into interstellar space through supernova explosions and stellar winds.

"Seeing the radiation from this heated dust revealed star formation we could have found in no other way," Wang said. Similar dusty galaxies in the early universe may contain most of the star formation at those times. "This means that future telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) can reveal many more such galaxies and give us a much more complete picture of star formation in the early universe," he added.

Lennox Cowie of the University of Hawaii said, "We found out in the last decade that most of the recent star formation in the Universe occurs in large dusty galaxies, but we had always expected that early star formation would be dominated by smaller and less obscured galaxies. Now it seems that even at very early times it may be the same big dusty star formers that are the sites of most of the star formation. That's quite a surprise."

Astronomers believe that large galaxies originally formed through mergers of smaller objects. Seeing a large galaxy such as GOODS 850-5 forming stars so rapidly at such an early time in the history of the universe is a surprise. "Either the mergers that formed the galaxy happened much faster than we thought or some other process altogether produced the galaxy," Wang said.

Wang and Cowie worked with Jennifer van Saders of Rutgers University and NRAO, Amy Barger of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jonathan Williams of the University of Hawaii. The scientists published their findings in the December 1 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Explore further: What are extrasolar planets?

Related Stories

Galaxy's snacking habits revealed

20 hours ago

A team of Australian and Spanish astronomers have caught a greedy galaxy gobbling on its neighbours and leaving crumbs of evidence about its dietary past.

Extremely young stellar clump in the distant universe

May 15, 2015

As part of an observing program carried out with the Subaru Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, a group of researchers from the Service d'Astrophysique- Laboratoire AIM of CEA-IRFU led by Anita Zanella ...

Cause of galactic death: Strangulation

May 13, 2015

As murder mysteries go, it's a big one: how do galaxies die and what kills them? A new study, published today in the journal Nature, has found that the primary cause of galactic death is strangulation, which ...

Recommended for you

What are extrasolar planets?

14 hours ago

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the universe. With the discovery of other planets in our solar system, the true extent of the Milky ...

A curious family of giant exoplanets

15 hours ago

There are 565 exoplanets currently known that are as massive as Jupiter or bigger, about one third of the total known, confirmed exoplanet population. About one quarter of the massive population orbits very ...

Astrobiology students explore alien environment on Earth

15 hours ago

Sonny Harman never thought he'd be able to travel far enough to do field work. That's because the Penn State doctoral student studies atmospheres on other planets. But to his surprise, Harman recently stepped ...

NASA image: Hubble revisits tangled NGC 6240

16 hours ago

Not all galaxies are neatly shaped, as this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 6240 clearly demonstrates. Hubble previously released an image of this galaxy back in 2008, but the knotted region, shown ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.