Keck Spots A Galaxy Fueled With Ancient Gas

Article written: 3 Oct , 2013
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
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“Primordial hydrogen” sounds like a great name for a band. It’s also a great thing to find when you’re looking at a galaxy. This ancient gas is a leftover of the Big Bang, and astronomers discovered it in a faraway star-forming galaxy that was created when the universe was young.

A continuous stream of gas was likely responsible for a cornucopia of star formation that took place about 10 billion years ago, when galaxies were churning out starbirths at a furious rate.

The astronomers spotted the gas by using a quasar that lit up the fuel from behind. Quasars a handy tool to use if you want to illuminate something, because even though quasars don’t live for very long in cosmic terms — they occur when matter falls into a ginormous black hole — they are extremely bright. Since the gas absorbs the light at certain frequencies, the absorption lines that show up in spectrometers reveal information about the composition, temperature and density of the gas.

“This is not the first time astronomers have found a galaxy with nearby gas, revealed by a quasar. But it is the first time that everything fits together,” stated Neil Crighton, who is with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Swinburne University and led the research. His team found the galaxy using the Keck I telescope in Hawaii.

The sun sets on Mauna Kea as the twin Kecks prepare for observing. Credit: Laurie Hatch/ W. M. Keck Observatory

“The galaxy is vigorously forming stars,” added Crighton, “and the gas properties clearly show that this is pristine material, left over from the early universe shortly after the Big Bang.”

Q1442-MD50 (as the galaxy is called) is 11 billion light years away from us — pretty close to the start of the universe about 13.8 billion years ago. The quasar that lit it up is called QSO J1444535+291905.

“Since this discovery is the result of a systematic search, we can now deduce that such cold flows are quite common,” stated Joseph Hennawi, the leader of the ENIGMA research group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. “We only had to search 12 quasar-galaxy pairs to discover this example. This rate is in rough agreement with the predictions of supercomputer simulations, which provides a vote of confidence for our current theories of how galaxies formed.”

You can read more details in the article (which is in Astrophysical Letters) or in this preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: Keck Observatory

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