Astrophysicists map the infant universe in 3-D and discover 4,000 early galaxies

April 3, 2018, Royal Astronomical Society
Map of the cube of spacetime covered in the new survey, showing the distance to the galaxies in billions of light years. The positions of the 4,000 galaxies appear as circles. The colours represent the degree of redshift seen, with the bluer circles indicating galaxies nearer to the Earth, and so less redshifted. Green, yellow, orange and red circles indicate successively higher redshifts, and galaxies that are progressively further away from the Earth. Credit: D. Sobral

Astronomers today announce one of the largest 3D maps of the infant Universe, in a presentation at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool. A team led by Dr David Sobral of Lancaster University made the chart using the Subaru telescope in Hawaii and the Isaac Newton telescope in the Canary Islands. Looking back in time to 16 different epochs between 11 and 13 billion years ago, the researchers discovered almost 4000 early galaxies, many of which will have evolved into galaxies like our own Milky Way.

Light from the most distant galaxies takes billions of years to reach us. This means that telescopes act as time machines, allowing astronomers to see galaxies in the distant past. The light from these galaxies is also stretched by the expansion of the Universe, increasing its wavelength to make it redder. This so-called redshift is related to the distance of the galaxy. By measuring the redshift of a galaxy, astronomers can thus deduce its distance, how long its light has taken to reach us and hence how far back in time we are seeing it.

In the new work the team used filters to sample particular wavelengths of light, and hence specific epochs in the history of the Universe.

Sergio Santos, a Lancaster PhD student and team member, comments: "We used large amounts of data taken with 16 special filters on wide field cameras and processed them here in Lancaster to literally slice the Universe in cosmic time and time-travel to the distant past with 16 well defined cosmic time destinations."

Dr Sobral adds: "These early galaxies seem to have gone through many more "bursts" when they formed stars, instead of forming them at a relatively steady rate like our own galaxy. Additionally, they seem to have a population of young stars that is hotter, bluer and more metal-poor than those we see today."

Map of the cube of spacetime covered in the new survey, showing the 'lookback time' to the galaxies in billions of years. The positions of the 4,000 galaxies appear as circles. The colours represent the degree of redshift seen, with the bluer circles indicating galaxies seen in the more recent past, and so less redshifted. Green, yellow, orange and red circles indicate successively higher redshifts, and galaxies that are progressively seen further back in time. Credit: D. Sobral

Sobral and his team found galaxies that existed when the Universe was only 20 to 7% of its current age, and hence provide crucial information about the early phases of galaxy formation.

The researchers also found that these early galaxies are incredibly compact. "The bulk of the distant galaxies we found are only about 3 thousand years across in size, while our Milky Way is about 30 times larger. Their compactness likely explains many of their exciting physical properties that were common in the early Universe", comments Ana Paulino-Afonso, a PhD student in Lancaster and Lisbon. "Some of these galaxies should have evolved to become like our own and thus we are seeing what our galaxy may have looked like 11 to 13 billion years ago."

View of the COSMOS field in the constellation of Sextans, seen in infrared light. This corresponds closely to the region of the sky studied in the new work. Credit: ESO/UltraVISTA team. Acknowledgement: TERAPIX/CNRS/INSU/CASU

The team searched for distant emitting Lyman-alpha radiation, using 16 different narrow and medium band filters over the COSMOS field, which is one of the most widely studied regions of sky outside our Milky Way, located in the direction of the constellation of Sextans. The Lancaster-led team includes young researchers from Leiden, Lisbon and California. The team also publish their findings in two papers in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and the data are now publicly available for other astronomers to make further discoveries.

Explore further: Struggle to escape distant galaxies creates giant halos of scattered photons

More information: "Slicing COSMOS with SC4K: the evolution of typical Lyα emitters and the Lyα escape fraction from z~2to z~6", David Sobral, Sérgio Santos, Jorryt Matthee, Ana Paulino-Afonso, Bruno Ribeiro, João Calhau, Ali Khostovan, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in press.

"On the UV compactness and morphologies of typical Lyman-α emitters from z ? 2 to z ? 6", Ana Paulino-Afonso, David Sobral, Bruno Ribeiro, Jorryt Matthee, Sérgio Santos, João Calhau, Alex Forshaw, Andrea Johnson, Joanna Merrick, Sara Pérez and Oliver Sheldon, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in press.

Related Stories

Astronomers detect 'whirlpool' movement in earliest galaxies

January 10, 2018

Astronomers have looked back to a time soon after the Big Bang, and have discovered swirling gas in some of the earliest galaxies to have formed in the Universe. These 'newborns' - observed as they appeared nearly 13 billion ...

Image: Hubble's compact galaxy with big-time star formation

October 16, 2017

As far as galaxies are concerned, size can be deceptive. Some of the largest galaxies in the Universe are dormant, while some dwarf galaxies, such as ESO 553-46 imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, can produce ...

Recommended for you

The powerful meteor that no one saw (except satellites)

March 19, 2019

At precisely 11:48 am on December 18, 2018, a large space rock heading straight for Earth at a speed of 19 miles per second exploded into a vast ball of fire as it entered the atmosphere, 15.9 miles above the Bering Sea.

Revealing the rules behind virus scaffold construction

March 19, 2019

A team of researchers including Northwestern Engineering faculty has expanded the understanding of how virus shells self-assemble, an important step toward developing techniques that use viruses as vehicles to deliver targeted ...

OSIRIS-REx reveals asteroid Bennu has big surprises

March 19, 2019

A NASA spacecraft that will return a sample of a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu to Earth in 2023 made the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface. Bennu also revealed itself ...

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 03, 2018
"Additionally, they seem to have a population of young stars that is hotter, bluer and more metal-poor than those we see today.

At ever greater distances galaxies must be younger, hotter and brighter in order to be visible. It does not mean that *only* these galaxies exist at great distance but, rather, that *only* these galaxies are visible at the greater distances.
Da Schneib
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2018
Actually, Lyman α emitters are quite dim compared to other galaxies at the same distance. It is, however, quite easy to pick them out due to the (relatively) strong Lyman α line they emit.

There are very few Lyman α emitters at z < 1. They all seem to have disappeared, like the quasars. But there are a lot of them at greater distances, indicating that galaxies stop emitting the Lyman α line as they get older. There is a strong correlation between "starburst" galaxies and Lyman α emission. That's why they're interesting.
3 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2018
So mack, if I understand your Steady-State Universe model correctly?

The s-s universe has always consisted of closely spaced tiny proto-galaxies of primitive, metal-poor stars?

Then suddenly within the last few billion years. For some unknown reason that all changed...


Across the entire universe.

Unpredictably resulting in dynamic amalgamations of large galaxies and metal-rich stars?

Would that come under the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? That the old, s-s universe accidentally broke and the new paradigm changed everything?

That the Steady-State theorem was correct for an indeterminable span of time? But is no longer correct and has to be replaced with new theories to explain what we observe at this point in time?

Hey, works for me! As I'm of the opinion that we are in the midst of a cosmic 'drunkard's walk'.
not rated yet May 04, 2018
Da Schneib "There are very few Lyman α emitters at z < 1"

There are many problems with this. Firstly, the number of galaxies in the visible universe increases with distance, a simple inverse square rule, so there is going to be fewer of everything close in.

Second, even old galaxies produce new stars so where is the Lyman α emission coming from? If it is coming from new stars then why aren't these emissions found in all galaxies?

A further problem is that the newly formed galaxies near by, such as DDO 68 (UGC 5340) only 39 million light-years away, apparently don't have Lyman α lines, or do they?

Perhaps there is some other reason for the distribution of Lyman-alpha in the universe?

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.