Nav: Home

Astronomers find unexpected, dust-obscured star formation in distant galaxy

March 23, 2017

AMHERST, Mass. - Pushing the limits of the largest single-aperture millimeter telescope in the world, and coupling it with gravitational lensing, University of Massachusetts Amherst astronomer Alexandra Pope and colleagues report that they have detected a surprising rate of star formation, four times higher than previously detected, in a dust-obscured galaxy behind a Frontier Fields cluster.

As Pope explains, "This very distant, relatively typical galaxy is known to us, and we knew it was forming stars, but we had no idea what its real star-formation rate was because there is so much dust surrounding it. Previous observations couldn't reach past that. Finding out that 75 percent of its star formation was obscured by dust is remarkable and intriguing. These observations clearly show that we have more to learn."

She adds, "Historians want to know how civilizations were built up, and we astronomers want to know where and how the elements in the universe were formed and where everything is made of, came from." The study is accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

The new tool that has made such revelations possible is the 50-meter Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) which has been observing as a 32-meter telescope located on an extinct volcano in central Mexico in "early science mode" since 2013. Operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE), it offers astonishing new power to peer into dusty galaxies, the astrophysicist says.

Pope, an expert at analyzing how dust masks star formation, says tracing dust-obscured galaxies at early epochs offers good signposts for understanding how the universe became enriched with metals over time. "We know at the basic level that metals are formed in stars, but the rate of buildup over cosmic time we don't know," she points out. "We know what we see today but we don't know how it came about, and we want to fill in that picture."

Overall, she and colleagues write, "This remarkable lower-mass galaxy showing signs of both low metallicity and high dust content may challenge our picture of dust production in the early universe."

Before the AzTEC camera on the LMT took observations of this galaxy, astronomers relied on Hubble Space Telescope images to study star formation, Pope says. But most star formation is obscured by dust, so the Hubble images could not make a complete census of the buildup of stars in this galaxy. "Previous millimeter observations have been limited to the most extreme dusty galaxies. With this study, we have detected a surprisingly high rate of dust-obscured star formation in a typical galaxy in the early universe."

With gravitational lensing, researchers use a foreground mass - another galaxy or a galaxy cluster - as a lens. As light from very distant, background galaxies passes through, it is magnified. "This technique offers a way to see things that are much fainter than your telescope can see," she notes. As traced in Hubble images, the lensed galaxy they studied in the Frontier Fields cluster showed it forming only about four solar masses of new stars per year, which is a "fairly typical" observation and unsurprising to astronomers today, Pope says. "But then the LMT observations revealed another 15 solar masses per year, which means we had been missing about three-quarters of the star formation going on."

She adds, "We are not yet at the level of detecting all of the star formation going on, but we are getting better. One of the big goals for us is to push observations at longer wavelengths and to trace these very dusty galaxies at early epochs. We are pushing observations in this direction and the fact that Hubble found only one quarter of the star formation in this distant normal galaxy is a huge motivation for doing a lot more studies like this."

As early as next year, Pope and her colleague Grant Wilson will install on the LMT a new state-of-the-art imaging system he is building, dubbed TolTEC. It will offer mapping speed 100 times faster than the LMT's current capability making it the fastest millimeter-wavelength polarimetric camera on Earth for conducting deep surveys of the universe, Wilson says. It should allow astronomers to create a census of star-forming galaxies, and observations that require five years to complete today will be done in a little over one week.

Pope says, "Currently, our census of dust-obscured star formation activity in galaxies is severely incomplete, especially in the distant universe. With TolTEC on the LMT, we will be able to make a complete census of dust-obscured star formation activity in galaxies over 13 billion years of cosmic time.
-end-
This work was supported by CONACYT, the Mexican science and technology funding agency, the U.S. National Science Foundation, INAOE and UMass Amherst. Gravitational lens support came from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields program and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Related Star Formation Articles:

A star is born: Using lasers to study how star stuff is made
On a typical day at the world's biggest laser, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California, you can find scientists casually making star-like conditions using 192 high-powered lasers.
Cascades of gas around young star indicate early stages of planet formation
What does a gestating baby planet look like? New research in Nature by a team including Carnegie's Jaehan Bae investigated the effects of three planets in the process of forming around a young star, revealing the source of their atmospheres.
Massive exoplanet orbiting tiny star challenges planet formation theory
Astronomers have discovered a giant Jupiter-like exoplanet in an unlikely location -- orbiting a small red dwarf star.
ALMA pinpoints the formation site of planet around nearest young star
Researchers using ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) found a small dust concentration in the disk around TW Hydrae, the nearest young star.
Star formation burst in the Milky Way 2-3 million years ago
A team led by researchers of the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the University of Barcelona and the Besançon Astronomical Observatory have found, analysing data from the Gaia satellite, that a severe star formation burst occurred in the Milky Way about to and three thousand million years ago.
The rise and fall of Ziggy star formation and the rich dust from ancient stars
Researchers have detected a radio signal from abundant interstellar dust in MACS0416_Y1, a galaxy 13.2 billion light-years away in the constellation Eridanus.
Lifting the veil on star formation in the Orion Nebula
Writing in 'Nature', an international research team including astronomers from Cologne describe their discovery that stellar wind from a newborn star in the Orion Nebula is preventing more stars from forming nearby.
Massive star's unusual death heralds the birth of compact neutron star binary
Carnegie's Anthony Piro was part of a Caltech-led team of astronomers who observed the peculiar death of a massive star that exploded in a surprisingly faint and rapidly fading supernova, possibly creating a compact neutron star binary system.
Galactic 'wind' stifling star formation is most distant yet seen
For the first time, a powerful 'wind' of molecules has been detected in a galaxy located 12 billion light-years away.
Chemical traces from star formation cast light on cosmic history
Fresh insight into intense star formation in distant galaxies is changing researchers' ideas about cosmic history.
More Star Formation News and Star Formation Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#540 Specialize? Or Generalize?
Ever been called a "jack of all trades, master of none"? The world loves to elevate specialists, people who drill deep into a single topic. Those people are great. But there's a place for generalists too, argues David Epstein. Jacks of all trades are often more successful than specialists. And he's got science to back it up. We talk with Epstein about his latest book, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.