An artist’s rendering of galaxy BX442 and its companion dwarf galaxy (upper left)

Oldest Spiral Galaxy in the Universe Discovered

18 Jul , 2012

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Caption: An artist’s rendering of galaxy BX442 and its companion dwarf galaxy (upper left). Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics/Joe Bergeron

Ancient starlight traveling for 10.7 billion years has brought a surprise – evidence of a spiral galaxy long before other spiral galaxies are known to have formed.

“As you go back in time to the early universe, galaxies look really strange, clumpy and irregular, not symmetric,” said Alice Shapley, a UCLA associate professor of physics and astronomy, and co-author of a study reported in today’s journal Nature. “The vast majority of old galaxies look like train wrecks. Our first thought was, why is this one so different, and so beautiful?”

Galaxies today come in a variety of unique shapes and sizes. Some, like our Milky Way Galaxy, are rotating disks of stars and gas called spiral galaxies. Other galaxies, called elliptical galaxies, resemble giant orbs of older reddish stars moving in random directions. Then there are a host of smaller irregular shaped galaxies bound together by gravity but lacking in any visible structure. A great, diverse population of these types of irregular galaxies dominated the early Universe, says Shapely.

Light from this incredibly distant spiral galaxy, traveling at nearly six trillion miles per year, took 10.7 billion years to reach Earth; just 3 billion years after the Universe was created in an event called the Big Bang.

According to a press release from UCLA, astronomers used the sharp eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope to spy on 300 very distant galaxies in the early Universe. The scientists originally thought their galaxy, one of the most massive in their survey going by the unglamorous name of BX442, was an illusion, perhaps two galaxies superimposed on each other.

“The fact that this galaxy exists is astounding,” said David Law, lead author of the study and Dunlap Institute postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Current wisdom holds that such ‘grand-design’ spiral galaxies simply didn’t exist at such an early time in the history of the universe.” A ‘grand design’ galaxy has prominent, well-formed spiral arms.

To understand their image further, astronomers used a unique, state-of-the-art instrument called the OSIRIS spectrograph at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano. The instrument, built by UCLA professor James Larkin, allowed them to study light from about 3,600 locations in and around BX442. This spectra gave them the clues they needed to show they were indeed looking at a single, rotating spiral galaxy.

While spiral galaxies are abundant throughout the current cosmos, that wasn’t always the case. Spiral galaxies in the early Universe were rare because of frequent interactions. “BX442 looks like a nearby galaxy, but in the early universe, galaxies were colliding together much more frequently,” says Shapely. “Gas was raining in from the intergalactic medium and feeding stars that were being formed at a much more rapid rate than they are today; black holes grew at a much more rapid rate as well. The universe today is boring compared to this early time.”

Shapely and Law think the gravitational tug-of-war between a dwarf galaxy companion and BX442 may be responsible for its futuristic look. The companion appears as just a small blob in their image. Computer simulations conducted by Charlotte Christensen, a postdoctoral student at the University of Arizona and co-author of the paper, lends evidence to this idea. Eventually, BX442 and the smaller galaxy likely will merge.

Shapley said BX442 represents a link between early galaxies that are much more turbulent and the rotating spiral galaxies that we see around us. “Indeed, this galaxy may highlight the importance of merger interactions at any cosmic epoch in creating grand design spiral structure,” she said.

Studying BX442 is likely to help astronomers understand how spiral galaxies like the Milky Way form, she added.

Caption 2: HST/Keck false color composite image of galaxy BX442. Credit: David Law/Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

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Paul Cook
Guest
July 18, 2012 7:08 PM
Once again scientists are baffled that galaxies so far back in time can look (some of them) as mature galaxies today. They’re baffled because the Big Bang suggests that they can’t look like spiral galaxies or have “old” stars in them, or even have heavy metals in them, as some have been discovered to have. It’s the Wall of the Big Bang: they’ve come up against theory that they dare not contradict. There must be some other, more mundane, reason these galaxies look billions of years older than they do. It can’t be because the Big Bang theory might not be true–or that the universe might be hundreds of billion years old . . . old enough to… Read more »
PhelanKA7
Member
PhelanKA7
July 18, 2012 7:54 PM

I think it has less to do with a grossly incorrect age estimation for the Universe or the validity of the Big Bang and more to do with our lack of understanding galaxy formation.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
July 18, 2012 10:08 PM

Of course the current inflationary standard cosmology which replaced the old big bang cosmology (but can still be a “Big Bang” theory depending on your definitions) can still be wrong.

It is highly unlikely though, because the contenders have all fallen.

And no, even if you take out the standard cosmology out of a Hubble expansion universe it doesn’t make it “hundreds of billion years old”. Instead you get problems with inconsistencies, stars older than the universe IIRC. But nothing like the rather interesting insights into star and galaxy formation these observations are.

Charles L Nelson
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Charles L Nelson
July 21, 2012 4:05 PM

An astronomer proposes a causation for galaxy formation. A ‘younger’ galaxy is found…”cannot happen”…because the earlier ‘explanation’ is in the literature. Sounds Biblical to me…limited knowledge used to explain ‘everything’.

magnus.nyborg
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magnus.nyborg
July 18, 2012 10:47 PM

We know the universe exists, and we know it has existed for some time. Now scientists are investigating, and trying to make sense of what are observed with theories. In this process there will be some dead ends, some revolutions, and alot of rejection of theories that dont match observations.
But this process beats the unsupported statement “God dunnit” any day.

Gordon Blacklaw
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Gordon Blacklaw
July 18, 2012 7:33 PM

The big bang is a theory, the universe is expanding therfore it must have exploded from a single point. I don’t know how many pages full of incomprehensible formulae it takes to create billions of galaxys from nothing but somthing tells me it’s alot.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
July 18, 2012 11:48 PM
This is something I wrote a few months ago on the topic of the big bang. This is fairly simple and only based on Newton’s laws. So let us start with the basics. Let the distance to some galaxy far away be x. I find that this distance x is changing, so I assign a scale factor a. So the time evolution of a distance x is given by x = x(t) = a(t)x(0) In this way this motion of any distant galaxy can be compared to this scale factor which expands (or contracts if that were to be the case) with the dynamics of the universe. Now consider the next ingredient. The energy E of a particle… Read more »
delphinus100
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delphinus100
July 19, 2012 12:47 AM
“The big bang is a theory,” And you are using ‘theory’ the way scientists use the word ‘hypothesis.’ ‘Theories’ are constructed on the results of testing hypotheses with experiment and/or observation. Look up the word ‘theory’ in any good dictionary. Seriously. Go and look. Plenty of dictionaries on-line. You will see several definitions. Yours is the layman’s use of the word. In science it’s a different one, and it’ll be there. Until you understand that, you will be talking past anyone versed in science… And yes, it is simply logical to assume that if, on a large scale the Universe is expanding (if you don’t believe in the Doppler shifts that tell us that, you must not believe… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
July 18, 2012 10:29 PM
Creationists should comment on science blogs, is is hilarious. – Yes, precisely as gravitation is a theory cosmology is. Do you want to test the facts of gravitaion theory by walking out of the 10th floor of a sky skraper? A well tested theory without contenders is a sort of superfact – not only does it comprise the observational facts it is based on but it predicts and tests new facts – it is a set of many facts meshed together. – _Every volume_ in the universe expands, or the cosmic background radiation wouldn’t be isotropic. Therefore there is no center “single point” any more than a raising bread of raisins have the raisins expand out of a… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
July 19, 2012 12:46 PM
There is a deeper matter involved as well. General relativity does not give an explicit formalism for the conservation of energy. A conservation law occurs when there is a symmetry that computes a constant of the motion. In the case of general relativity this is a Killing vector K = (K_t, K_i) that acts on a momentum vector P = (E, p) so that K•P = constant. For instance a spacetime with a rotational symmetry has Killing vectors K_i with [K_i, K_j] = ?_{ijk}K_k This conserves momentum and angular momentum in three spatial directions. For the conservation of energy there is a timelike Killing vector that acts on the energy so that K_tE = constant. General spacetimes do… Read more »
TexasStargazer
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TexasStargazer
July 19, 2012 3:52 AM

Maybe the universe is highly curved and Hubble is seeing all the way around the universe and viewing a galaxy in our current space-time. It does kind of resemble some familiar galaxies such as M-51.

TheDirtBoy
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TheDirtBoy
July 19, 2012 5:34 AM

Scientists have been looking for that curve for years now and have not found it yet. Besides, after 10.7 billion years, that galaxy most likely doesn’t look like that any more. Just like comparing your photo at 6 months old and your current photo, little if any resemblance.

Mich48
Member
Mich48
July 19, 2012 4:02 AM

So it took 10.7 billion years for the light from this galaxy to reach our eyes. 10.7 billion years ago means it has been also producing new light for another 10.7 billion years. Does that mean the observable universe is at least 21.4 billion years old or am I just having a brain fart.

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
Member
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
July 19, 2012 11:27 AM

Does that mean the observable universe is at least 21.4 billion years old or am I just having a brain fart.

Your latter, not the former, assumption is correct. See: Observable Universe.

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
July 19, 2012 12:36 PM

Yeah definitely a brainfart, but we all have them smile (especially where the age of the universe is concerned)

The light has taken 10.7 billion years to get here, which means we’re seeing it at age 3 billion years. Good chance it’s still there, 7.7 billion years later (i.e. now), still producing light. But we won’t see that light until T = 24.4Gy
(age of universe + 10.7… ignoring expansion and such)

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
July 19, 2012 10:21 PM

The galaxy is by the Hubble relation v = Hd is moving at

v = (74km/sec/Mpc)(10.7×10^9ly/3.26ly/pc) = 2.43×10^5km/sec

which is close to the speed of light. In 3 billion years it will be about 2.4 billion light years away. In fact it will be moving away faster and will have moved somewhat further. Light emitted by this galaxy in 3 billion years will travel a distance of about 13 billion light years.

LC

HeadAroundU
Guest
HeadAroundU
July 19, 2012 4:27 AM

I think I saw similar ones at Galaxy Zoo. There must be some thread about old spirals over there…

Gopal Anantharaman
Guest
July 19, 2012 7:55 PM

This is the thought that I always had. What if the light from the galaxy is really from Milky way itself! We are looking at our own Galaxy’s light which is in some waywent all around the universe which is then spherical and reached us.We realized that earth is round now it is time to realize that the observable universe is also a closed container and not flat.

wpDiscuz