Yale astronomers have at last gotten a first look at the formation of “the universe’s monster galaxies,” Phys.org reports, and the results are fascinating.
The research, which used data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, was published Wednesday in the journal Nature. It marks the first time astronomers have seen the earliest stages of a massive galaxy’s formation.
The Keck II telescope’s Near Infrared Spectograph allowed the astronomers to watch the galaxy — officially called GOODS-N-774 but nicknamed “Sparky” — produce massive amounts of stars. Witnessing this formation gave them new insight into how ancient galaxies may have formed 11 billion years ago — only 3 billion years after the Big Bang.
The scientists found that Sparky’s formation is unique to the early universe that it developed in: its rapid gas movement was often violent, and it produced as many as 300 stars per year — an astounding amount of stars, especially considering its relatively tiny size (it measured roughly 6,000 light-years across). The Milky Way, by contrast, only produces roughly 10 stars annually, but spans 100,000 light-years.
“I think our discovery settles the question of whether this mode of building galaxies actually happened or not,” said Pieter van Dokkum, one of the Yale astronomers. “The question now is, ‘How often did this occur?’ We suspect there are other galaxies like this that are even fainter in near-infrared wavelengths. We had been searching for this galaxy for years, and it’s very exciting that we finally found it.” —Meghan DeMaria