'Cosmic telescopes' may have found infant galaxies

June 05, 2006

Using massive clusters of galaxies as "cosmic telescopes," a research team led by a Johns Hopkins University astronomer has found what may be infant galaxies born in the first billion years after the beginning of the universe.

If these findings are confirmed, the extra magnification provided by these gargantuan natural telescopes will have given astronomers their best-ever view of galaxies as they formed in the early universe, more than 12 billion years ago, said Holland Ford, a professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Ford is the head of the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys Science Team, which also includes researchers from the Space Telescope Science Institute, PUC in Chile, and other universities around the world.

Ford announced the team's results this morning at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The team's spectroscopic observations were made possible, he said, by gravitational lensing, the bending of light caused by gravity's warping of space in the presence of such massive objects as clusters of galaxies.

"One of Einstein's most startling predictions was that a gravitation field can be thought of as a distortion of space and time," Ford said. "Gravitational lensing by massive clusters of galaxies that have about 1 million billion times more mass than the sun provide one of the most striking confirmations of Einstein's prediction."

Our view of distant galaxies behind a cluster can be magnified by amounts that vary from barely detectable to as many as 50 or 100 times normal size, depending on the location of the galaxy and the distribution of mass within the cluster, Ford said. The clusters are, in effect, giant cosmic telescopes that allow astronomers to find and study distant galaxies that otherwise would be too faint to study.

"Astronomers want to know when the first galaxies formed, how large and how bright galaxies are at birth, and how galaxies grow into large mature galaxies like our home Milky Way galaxy," Ford said. "Our team is searching for infant galaxies that are less than a billion years old by comparing images of strongly lensing clusters taken by the Hubble Space Telescope with images of the same clusters taken by the Magellan, the Very Large Telescopes (VLT), and Gemini telescopes. The infant galaxies are so far away their light is almost or entirely redshifted to wavelengths that cannot be detected with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys, but can be detected with infrared detectors on the world's largest telescopes."

Using this technique, the ACS team has searched for infant galaxies behind 14 lensing clusters. If longer spectroscopic observations of the three brightest candidate galaxies confirm that they are indeed in the early universe, these galaxies will provide astronomers their clearest view yet of the youngest galaxies ever seen.

Today's presentation is based on the AAS Abstract 66.03 "Bright Candidates of Galaxies at Redshift 7-8 in the ACS Cluster Fields" by Wei Zheng1, H. Ford1, L. Infante2, V. Motta1,2, M. Postman3, and the ACS Science Team. (1Johns Hopkins University, 2PUC, Chile, 3Space Telescope Science Institute.)

The ACS was developed under NASA contract NAS5-32865, and this research was supported by NASA grant NAG5-7697. These results are based on observations collected at the European Southern Observatory, Chile; the Las Campanas Magellan Telescopes in Chile; and Gemini North, a telescope operated by the Gemini Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Johns Hopkins University

Related Astronomers Articles from Brightsurf:

Astronomers are bulging with data
For the first time, over 250 million stars in our galaxy's bulge have been surveyed in near-ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared light, opening the door for astronomers to reexamine key questions about the Milky Way's formation and history.

Astronomers capture a pulsar 'powering up'
A Monash-University-led collaboration has, for the first time, observed the full, 12-day process of material spiralling into a distant neutron star, triggering an X-ray outburst thousands of times brighter than our Sun.

Astronomers discover new class of cosmic explosions
Analysis of two cosmic explosions indicates to astronomers that the pair, along with a puzzling blast from 2018, constitute a new type of event, with similarities to some supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, but also with significant differences.

Astronomers discover planet that never was
What was thought to be an exoplanet in a nearby star system likely never existed in the first place, according to University of Arizona astronomers.

Canadian astronomers determine Earth's fingerprint
Two McGill University astronomers have assembled a 'fingerprint' for Earth, which could be used to identify a planet beyond our Solar System capable of supporting life.

Astronomers help wage war on cancer
Techniques developed by astronomers could help in the fight against breast and skin cancer.

Astronomers make history in a split second
In a world first, an Australian-led international team of astronomers has determined the precise location of a powerful one-off burst of cosmic radio waves.

Astronomers witness galaxy megamerger
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international team of scientists has uncovered a startlingly dense concentration of 14 galaxies that are poised to merge, forming the core of what will eventually become a colossal galaxy cluster.

Astronomers discover a star that would not die
An international team of astronomers has made a bizarre discovery; a star that refuses to stop shining.

Astronomers spun up by galaxy-shape finding
For the first time astronomers have measured how a galaxy's spin affects its shape -- something scientists have tried to do for 90 years -- using a sample of 845 galaxies.

Read More: Astronomers News and Astronomers Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.