How the universe's brightest galaxies were born

September 23, 2015

Image shows the gas density distribution of one instance in time of the model starburst galaxy, spanning approximately 650,000 light years across. Extreme star formation in the central galaxy is fueled by significant gas inflows, rendering it extremely bright. Credit: Desika Narayanan
The brightest galaxies in our universe are fuelled by what their gravity sucks in, not through explosive mergers of star systems as scientists previously argued, researchers said Wednesday.

In what may be the most complete explanation yet of how these enormous collections of stars and dust came to be, scientists found the galaxies pulled in and then used it to pump out the equivalent of up to 2,000 Suns per year, according to a study in Nature.

By comparison, our own galaxy—the Milky Way—turns out stars at the rate of about one "Sun" per year.

The brilliant light put off by these so-called submillimetre galaxies (SMGs)—named for the part of the electromagnetic spectrum they use—is all but invisible to the naked eye.

"The massive galaxy grows via [pulling in] gas from intergalactic space and forms stars at a steady but large rate for nearly a billion years," study co-author Desika Narayanan of Haverford College in the United States told AFP.

These galaxies date from the early days of our roughly 14-billion-year-old universe, but researchers have only known about them for a couple of decades.

Their brightness, which gives off 1,000 times the light of the Milky Way, is due mostly to their prolific output of stars.

Movie shows rotating view of extreme infrared-luminous starburst region in the early Universe, just a few billion years after the Big Bang. The model suggests that extreme infrared-luminous regions observed by submillimetre-wave telescopes are often comprised of groups of galaxies in the early Universe that will grow to be massive clusters in the present day. Credit: Robert Thompson (NCSA)

Scientists disagree on how the SMGs were born, but one of the favoured explanations is that they result from slamming together and exploding into an intense burst of star-making.

But Narayanan says this theory can't account for all the qualities of super bright galaxies, especially their relatively large sizes, since mergers tend to make rather compact galaxies.

Enigmatic galaxy

To test their own gravity-based explanation, Narayanan and colleagues used super computers to simulate the creation of an SMG.

Image shows distribution of galaxies across the infrared luminous region, at a given instance in time. The colours denote the gas density. The model suggests that extreme infrared-luminous regions observed by submillimetre-wave telescopes are often comprised of groups of galaxies in the early Universe (just a few billion years after the Big Bang) that will grow to be massive clusters of galaxies at the present day. Credit: Robert Thompson (NCSA)

They found that the galaxies grew by pulling in gas that was then used to make which—because they were new—radiated exceptional amounts of light.

Mergers did not have a significant impact, even if SMGs can include clusters of galaxies which bump up their brightness, the study concluded.

"The galaxies collectively contribute to the local luminosity and render the system extremely bright," Narayanan said.

The simulations were so complex that it took thousands of networked computers more than a month to do only a part of the calculations.

The team also ran models to track how light would move through these newly-created galaxies to see if the simulated outcome would resemble the real thing.

"These results provide one of the most viable models thus far for one of the most enigmatic (features of space) that we know about," Narayanan said.

The researchers were astounded to discover that, according to their calculations, submillimetre remain super bright for almost a billion years.

Usually, intensely luminous phenomena in the universe burn out relatively quickly—a mere tens of millions of years.

Explore further: Neutral hydrogen gas in galaxy clusters

More information: Nature,

Related Stories

Neutral hydrogen gas in galaxy clusters

September 9, 2015

Most galaxies are members of a cluster, a grouping of several to thousands of galaxies. Our Milky Way, for example, is a member of the "Local Group," a set of about fifty galaxies whose other large member is the Andromeda ...

Hubble looks in on a galactic nursery

July 27, 2015

This dramatic image shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's view of dwarf galaxy known as NGC 1140, which lies 60 million light-years away in the constellation of Eridanus. As can be seen in this image NGC 1140 has an ...

The kinematics of merging galaxies

May 28, 2015

The unprecedented sensitivity of space telescopes has powered a revolution over the past decade in our understanding of galaxies in the young universe during its first billion years of existence. These primitive objects are ...

Astronomers find galaxy cluster with bursting heart

September 10, 2015

An international team of astronomers has discovered a gargantuan galaxy cluster with a core bursting with new stars - an incredibly rare find. The discovery, made with the help of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is the ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.6 / 5 (10) Sep 23, 2015
Computer simulations - fantasy speculations on speculations of speculations!
Why the gas density of one galaxy should be so high compared to another galaxy, when they were formed from the same dust created at the Big Bang and both types of galaxies were formed more or less the same time?
2.5 / 5 (8) Sep 24, 2015
Garbage.. My dreams are more accurate!
1 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2015
Merger maniacs gone wild! Again.

Publish or perish.

Their big assumption is that the gas is pulled in from without, rather than being originally formed largely from within the core. Larger cores are more active, producing more gas naturally, leading to some galaxies forming far more stars than those with less active, smaller core stars. No need for galactic merger mania or unevenly distributed Huge Bang imaginary gas being sucked in.

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.