Nav: Home

Jackpot! Cosmic magnifying-glass effect captures universe's brightest galaxies

June 06, 2017

Boosted by natural magnifying lenses in space, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has captured unique close-up views of the universe's brightest infrared galaxies, which are as much as 10,000 times more luminous than our Milky Way.

The galaxy images, magnified through a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, reveal a tangled web of misshapen objects punctuated by exotic patterns such as rings and arcs. The odd shapes are due largely to the foreground lensing galaxies' powerful gravity distorting the images of the background galaxies. The unusual forms also may have been produced by spectacular collisions between distant, massive galaxies in a sort of cosmic demolition derby.

"We have hit the jackpot of gravitational lenses," said lead researcher James Lowenthal of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. "These ultra-luminous, massive, starburst galaxies are very rare. Gravitational lensing magnifies them so that you can see small details that otherwise are unimaginable. We can see features as small as about 100 light-years or less across. We want to understand what's powering these monsters, and gravitational lensing allows us to study them in greater detail."

The galaxies are ablaze with runaway star formation, pumping out more than 10,000 new stars a year. This unusually rapid star birth is occurring at the peak of the universe's star-making boom more than 8 billion years ago. The star-birth frenzy creates lots of dust, which enshrouds the galaxies, making them too faint to detect in visible light. But they glow fiercely in infrared light, shining with the brilliance of 10 trillion to 100 trillion suns.

Gravitational lenses occur when the intense gravity of a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies magnifies the light of fainter, more distant background sources. Previous observations of the galaxies, discovered in far-infrared light by ground- and space-based observatories, had hinted of gravitational lensing. But Hubble's keen vision confirmed the researchers' suspicion.

Lowenthal is presenting his results at 3:15 p.m. (EDT), June 6, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

According to the research team, only a few dozen of these bright infrared galaxies exist in the universe, scattered across the sky. They reside in unusually dense regions of space that somehow triggered rapid star formation in the early universe.

The galaxies may hold clues to how galaxies formed billions of years ago. "There are so many unknowns about star and galaxy formation," Lowenthal explained. "We need to understand the extreme cases, such as these galaxies, as well as the average cases, like our Milky Way, in order to have a complete story about how galaxy and star formation happen."

In studying these strange galaxies, astronomers first must detangle the foreground lensing galaxies from the background ultra-bright galaxies. Seeing this effect is like looking at objects at the bottom of a swimming pool. The water distorts your view, just as the lensing galaxies' gravity stretches the shapes of the distant galaxies. "We need to understand the nature and scale of those lensing effects to interpret properly what we're seeing in the distant, early universe," Lowenthal said. "This applies not only to these brightest infrared galaxies, but probably to most or maybe even all distant galaxies."

Lowenthal's team is halfway through its Hubble survey of 22 galaxies. An international team of astronomers first discovered the galaxies in far-infrared light using survey data from the European Space Agency's (ESA) Planck space observatory, and some clever sleuthing. The team then compared those sources to galaxies found in ESA's Herschel Space Observatory's catalog of far-infrared objects and to ground-based radio data taken by the Very Large Array in New Mexico. The researchers next used the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Mexico to measure their exact distances from Earth. The LMT's far-infrared images also revealed multiple objects, hinting that the galaxies were being gravitationally lensed.

These bright objects existed between 8 billion and 11.5 billion years ago, when the universe was making stars more vigorously than it is today. The galaxies' star-birth production is 5,000 to 10,000 times higher than that of our Milky Way. However, the ultra-bright galaxies are pumping out stars using only the same amount of gas contained in the Milky Way.

So, the nagging question is, what is powering the prodigious star birth? "We've known for two decades that some of the most luminous galaxies in the universe are very dusty and massive, and they're undergoing bursts of star formation," Lowenthal said. "But they've been very hard to study because the dust makes them practically impossible to observe in visible light. They're also very rare: they don't appear in any of Hubble's deep-field surveys. They are in random parts of the sky that nobody's looked at before in detail. That's why finding that they are gravitationally lensed is so important."

These galaxies may be the brighter, more distant cousins of the ultra-luminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGS), hefty, dust-cocooned, starburst galaxies, seen in the nearby universe. The ULIRGS' star-making output is stoked by the merger of two spiral galaxies, which is one possibility for the stellar baby boom in their more-distant relatives. However, Lowenthal said that computer simulations of the birth and growth of galaxies show that major mergers occur at a later epoch than the one in which these galaxies are seen.

Another idea for the star-making surge is that lots of gas, the material that makes stars, is flooding into the faraway galaxies. "The early universe was denser, so maybe gas is raining down on the galaxies, or they are fed by some sort of channel or conduit, which we have not figured out yet," Lowenthal said. "This is what theoreticians struggle with: How do you get all the gas into a galaxy fast enough to make it happen?"

The research team plans to use Hubble and the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii to try to distinguish between the foreground and background galaxies so they can begin to analyze the details of the brilliant monster galaxies.

Future telescopes, such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared observatory scheduled to launch in 2018, will measure the speed of the galaxies' stars so that astronomers can calculate the mass of these ultra-luminous objects.

"The sky is covered with all kinds of galaxies, including those that shine in far-infrared light," Lowenthal said. "What we're seeing here is the tip of the iceberg: the very brightest of all."
-end-
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

For more information and additional images, visit: http://hubblesite.org/news_release/news/2017-24

For NASA's Hubble webpage, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
dweaver@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu

James Lowenthal
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
413-585-6995
jlowenth@smith.edu

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Related Hubble Space Telescope Articles:

New way to weigh a white dwarf: Use Hubble Space Telescope
For the first time, astronomers have used a novel method to determine the mass of a type of star known as a 'white dwarf' -- the shrunken corpse of a dead star that used to be like our sun.
NASA's James Webb space telescope completes acoustic and vibration tests
At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland the James Webb Space Telescope team completed the acoustic and vibration portions of environmental testing on the telescope.
Probing seven worlds with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope
With the discovery of seven earth-sized planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star 40 light years away, astronomers are looking to the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to help us find out if any of these planets could possibly support life.
NASA restarts rigorous vibration testing on the James Webb Space Telescope
Testing on the James Webb Space Telescope successfully resumed last week at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.
Robot would assemble modular telescope -- in space
A new concept in space telescope design uses a modular structure and an assembly robot to build an extremely large telescope in space, performing tasks in which astronaut fatigue would be a problem.
Science instruments of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope successfully installed
With surgical precision, two dozen engineers and technicians successfully installed the package of science instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope into the telescope structure.
James Webb Space Telescope's golden mirror unveiled
NASA engineers recently unveiled the giant golden mirror of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope as part of the integration and testing of the infrared telescope.
Earth-space telescope system produces hot surprise
Combining an orbiting radio telescope with telescopes on Earth made a system capable of the highest resolution of any observation ever made in astronomy.
NASA marks major milestones for the James Webb Space Telescope
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope just got a little closer to launch with the completion of cryogenic testing on its science cameras and spectrographs and the installation of the final flight mirrors.
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope secondary mirror installed
The sole secondary mirror that will fly aboard NASA's James Webb Space Telescope was installed onto the telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on March 3, 2016.

Related Hubble Space Telescope Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#532 A Class Conversation
This week we take a look at the sociology of class. What factors create and impact class? How do we try and study it? How does class play out differently in different countries like the US and the UK? How does it impact the political system? We talk with Daniel Laurison, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and coauthor of the book "The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged", about class and its impacts on people and our systems.