Astronomers discover rare galaxy at dawn of time

December 21, 2011

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Astronomers, including the University of California, Riverside's Bahram Mobasher and his graduate student Hooshang Nayyeri, have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The researchers made the discovery using NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

The galaxy, which was discovered and confirmed using ground-based telescopes, is 12.9 billion light-years away. Data from Spitzer and Hubble were used to measure the galaxy's high star production rate, equivalent to about 100 suns per year. For reference, our Milky Way galaxy is about five times larger and 100 times more massive than GN-108036, but makes roughly 30 times fewer stars per year.

The discovery is surprising because previous surveys had not found galaxies this bright so early in the history of the universe. According to the researches, GN-108036 may be a special, rare object that they happened to catch during an extreme burst of star formation.

The international team of astronomers, led by Masami Ouchi of the University of Tokyo, Japan, first identified the remote galaxy after scanning a large patch of sky with the Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Its great distance was then carefully confirmed with the W.M. Keck Observatory, also on Mauna Kea.

GN-108036 lies near the very beginning of time itself, a mere 750 million years after our universe was created 13.7 billion years ago in an explosive "Big Bang." Its light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach us, so we are seeing it as it existed in the very distant past.

Astronomers refer to the object's distance by a number called its "redshift," which relates to how much its light has stretched to longer, redder wavelengths due to the expansion of the universe. Objects with larger redshifts are farther away and are seen further back in time. GN-108036 has a redshift of 7.2. Only a handful of galaxies have confirmed redshifts greater than 7, and only two of these have been reported to be more distant than GN-108036.

Infrared observations from Spitzer and Hubble were crucial for measuring the galaxy's star-formation activity. Astronomers were surprised to see such a large burst of star formation because the galaxy is so small and from such an early cosmic era. Back when galaxies were first forming, in the first few hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, they were much smaller than they are today, having yet to bulk up in mass.

During this epoch, as the universe expanded and cooled after its explosive start, hydrogen atoms permeating the cosmos formed a thick fog that was opaque to ultraviolet light. This period, before the first stars and galaxies had formed and illuminated the universe, is referred to as the "dark ages." The era came to an end when light from the earliest galaxies burned through, or "ionized," the opaque gas, causing it to become transparent. Galaxies similar to GN-108036 may have played an important role in this event.

"The high rate of star formation found for GN-108036 implies that it was rapidly building up its mass some 750 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only about five percent of its present age," said Mobasher, a professor of physics and astronomy. "This was therefore a likely ancestor of massive and evolved galaxies seen today."
-end-
The researchers report their findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

Other authors include: Kyle Penner and Benjamin J. Weiner of the University of Arizona, Tucson; Yoshiaki Ono, Kazuhiro Shimasaku and Kimihiko Nakajima of the University of Tokyo; Mark Dickinson and Jeyhan S. Kartaltepe of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Ariz.; Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.; Nobunari Kashikawa of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan; and Hyron Spinrad of UC Berkeley.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 20,500 students. The campus will open a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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University of California - Riverside

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