Astronomers See a Pileup of 14 Separate Galaxies in the Early Universe

Looking deep into the observable Universe – and hence, back to the earliest periods of time – is an immensely fascinating thing. In so doing, astronomers are able to see the earliest galaxies in the Universe and learn more about how they evolved over time. From this, they are not only able to see how large-scale structures (like galaxies and galaxy clusters) formed, but also the role played by dark matter.

Most recently, an international team of scientists used the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe the Universe when it was just 1.4 billion years old. What they observed was a “protocluster”, a series of 14 galaxies located 12.4 billion light-years away that were about to merge. This would result in the formation of a massive galaxy cluster, one of the largest objects in the known Universe.

The study which described their findings, titled “A massive core for a cluster of galaxies at a redshift of 4.3“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Tim Miller – an astronomer from Dalhousie University, Halifax, and Yale University – and included members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), Canada’s National Research Council, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and multiple universities and research institutions.

ALMA image of 14 galaxies forming a protocluster known as SPT2349-56. These galaxies are in the process of merging and will eventually form the core of a truly massive galaxy cluster. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

As they indicate in their study, this protocluster (designated SPT2349-56) was first observed by the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope. Using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), the team conducted follow-up observations that confirmed that it was an extremely distant galactic source, which was then observed with ALMA. Using ALMA’s superior resolution and sensitivity, they were able to distinguish the individual galaxies.

What they found was that these galaxies were forming stars at rate 1,000 times faster than our galaxy, and were crammed inside a region of space that was about three times the size of the Milky Way. Using the ALMA data, the team was also able to create sophisticated computer simulations that demonstrated how this current collection of galaxies will likely grow and evolve over billion of years.

These simulations indicated that once these galaxies merge, the resulting galaxy cluster will rival some of the most massive clusters we see in the Universe today. As Scott Chapman, and astrophysicist at Dalhousie University and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Having caught a massive galaxy cluster in throes of formation is spectacular in and of itself. But, the fact that this is happening so early in the history of the universe poses a formidable challenge to our present-day understanding of the way structures form in the universe.”

Zooming in to the galaxies discovered by ALMA that are evolving into a galaxy cluster. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), T. Miller & S. Chapman et al.; Herschel; South Pole Telescope; (NRAO/AUI/NSF) B. Saxton

The current scientific consensus among astrophysicists states that a few million years after the Big Bang, normal matter and dark matter began to form larger concentrations, eventually giving rise to galaxy clusters. These objects are the largest structures in the Universe, containing trillions of stars, thousands of galaxies, immense amounts of dark matter and massive black holes.

However, current theories and computer models have suggested that protoclusters – like the one observed by ALMA – should have taken much longer to evolve. Finding one that dates to just 1.4 billion years after the Big Bang was therefore quite the surprise. As Tim Miller, who is currently a doctoral candidate at Yale University, indicated:

“How this assembly of galaxies got so big so fast is a bit of a mystery, it wasn’t built up gradually over billions of years, as astronomers might expect. This discovery provides an incredible opportunity to study how galaxy clusters and their massive galaxies came together in these extreme environments.”

Looking to the future, Chapman and his colleagues hope to conduct further studies of SPT2349-56 to see how this protoclusters eventually became a galaxy cluster. “ALMA gave us, for the first time, a clear starting point to predict the evolution of a galaxy cluster,” he said. “Over time, the 14 galaxies we observed will stop forming stars and will collide and coalesce into a single gigantic galaxy.”

The study of this and other protoclusters will be made possible thanks to instruments like ALMA, but also next-generation observatories like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). Equipped with more sensitive arrays and more advanced computer models, astronomers may be able to create a truly accurate timeline of how our Universe became what it is today.

Further Reading: NRAO, Nature

Astronomers Observe the Rotating Accretion Disk Around the Supermassive Black Hole in M77

During the 1970s, scientists confirmed that radio emissions coming from the center of our galaxy were due to the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellation, this feature came to be known as Sagittarius A*. Since that time, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center.

What’s more, astronomers have come to learn that black holes in these galaxies are surrounded by massive rotating toruses of dust and gas, which is what accounts for the energy they put out. However, it was only recently that a team of astronomers, using the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), were able to capture an image of the rotating dusty gas torus around the supermassive black hole of M77.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in the Astronomical Journal Letters under the title “ALMA Reveals an Inhomogeneous Compact Rotating Dense Molecular Torus at the NGC 1068 Nucleus“. The study was conducted by a team of Japanese researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan – led by Masatoshi Imanishi – with assistance from Kagoshima University.

The central region of the spiral galaxy M77. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope imaged the distribution of stars. ALMA revealed the distribution of gas in the very center of the galaxy. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Imanishi et al./NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and A. van der Hoeven

Like most massive galaxies, M77 has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), where dust and gas are being accreted onto its SMBH, leading to higher than normal luminosity. For some time, astronomers have puzzled over the curious relationship that exists between SMBHs and galaxies. Whereas more massive galaxies have larger SMBHs, host galaxies are still 10 billion times larger than their central black hole.

This naturally raises questions about how two objects of vastly different scales could directly affect each other. As a result, astronomers have sought to study AGN is order to determine how galaxies and black holes co-evolve. For the sake of their study, the team conducted high-resolution observations of the central region of M77, a barred spiral galaxy located about 47 million light years from Earth.

Using ALMA, the team imaged the area around M77’s center and were able to resolve a compact gaseous structure with a radius of 20 light-years. As expected, the team found that the compact structure was rotating around the galaxies central black hole. As Masatoshi Imanishi explained in an ALMA press release:

“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes. This is called the ‘unified model’ of AGN. However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”

Motion of gas around the supermassive black hole in the center of M77. The gas moving toward us is shown in blue and that moving away from us is in red. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Imanishi et al.

In the past, astronomers have observed the center of M77, but no one has been able to resolve the rotating torus at its center until now. This was made possible thanks to the superior resolution of ALMA, as well as the selection of molecular emissions lines. These emissions lines include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+), which emit microwaves only in dense gas, and carbon monoxide – which emits microwaves under a variety of conditions.

The observations of these emission lines confirmed another prediction made by the team, which was that the torus would be very dense. “Previous observations have revealed the east-west elongation of the dusty gaseous torus,” said Imanishi. “The dynamics revealed from our ALMA data agrees exactly with the expected rotational orientation of the torus.”

However, their observations also indicated that the distribution of gas around an SMBH is more complicated that what a simple unified model suggests. According to this model, the rotation of the torus would follow the gravity of the black hole; but what Imanishi and his team found indicated that gas and dust in the torus also exhibit signs of highly random motion.

These could be an indication that the AGN at the center of M77 had a violent history, which could include merging with a small galaxy in the past. In short, the team’s observations indicate that galactic mergers may have a significant impact on how AGNs form and behave. In this respect, their observations of M77s torus are already providing clues as to the galaxy’s history and evolution.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The study of SMBHs, while intensive, is also very challenging. On the one hand, the closest SMBH (Sagitarrius A*) is relatively quiet, with only a small amount of gas accreting onto it. At the same time, it is located at the center of our galaxy, where it is obscured by intervening dust, gas and stars. As such, astronomers are forced to look to other galaxies to study how SMBHs and their galaxies co-exist.

And thanks to decades of study and improvements in instrumentation, scientists are beginning to get a clear glimpse of these mysterious regions for the first time. By being able to study them in detail, astronomers are also gaining valuable insight into how such massive black holes and their ringed structures could coexist with their galaxies over time.

Further Reading: ALMA, arXiv

Amazing New Views of Betelgeuse Courtesy of ALMA

This orange blob is the nearby star Betelgeuse, as imaged recently by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ALMA/ESO/NRAO

Just. Wow.

An angry monster lurks in the shoulder of the Hunter. We’re talking about the red giant star Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis in the constellation Orion. Recently, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) gave us an amazing view of Betelgeuse, one of the very few stars that is large enough to be resolved as anything more than a point of light.

Located 650 light years distant, Betelgeuse is destined to live fast, and die young. The star is only eight million years old – young as stars go. Consider, for instance, our own Sun, which has been shining as a Main Sequence star for more than 500 times longer at 4.6 billion years – and already, the star is destined to go supernova at anytime in the next few thousand years or so, again, in a cosmic blink of an eye.

Still lumpy… Betelgeuse imaged by Hubble in 1996. Hubble/ESA/STScI

An estimated 12 times as massive as Sol, Betelgeuse is perhaps a staggering 6 AU or half a billion miles in diameter; plop it down in the center of our solar system, and the star might extend out past the orbit of Jupiter.

As with many astronomical images, the wow factor comes from knowing just what you’re seeing. The orange blob in the image is the hot roiling chromosphere of Betelgeuse, as viewed via ALMA at sub-millimeter wavelengths. Though massive, the star only appears 50 milliarcseconds across as seen from the Earth. To give you some idea just how small a milliarcsecond is, there’s a thousand of them in an arc second, and 60 arc seconds in an arc minute. The average Full Moon is 30 arc minutes across, or 1.8 million milliarcseconds in apparent diameter. Betelgeuse has one of the largest apparent diameters of any star in our night sky, exceeded only by R Doradus at 57 milliarcseconds.

The apparent diameter of Betelgeuse was first measured by Albert Michelson using the Mount Wilson 100-inch in 1920, who obtained an initial value of 240 million miles in diameter, about half the present accepted value, not a bad first attempt.

You can see hints of an asymmetrical bubble roiling across the surface of Betelgeuse in the ALMA image. Betelgeuse rotates once every 8.4 years. What’s going on under that uneasy surface? Infrared surveys show that the star is enveloped in an enormous bow-shock, a powder-keg of a star that will one day provide the Earth with an amazing light show.

The bowshock created by Betelgeuse as it plows through the local interstellar medium. JAXA/Akari

Thankfully, Betelgeuse is well out of the supernova “kill zone” of 25 to 100 light years (depending on the study). Along with Spica at 250 light years distant in the constellation Virgo, both are prime nearby supernovae candidates that will on day give astronomers a chance to study the anatomy of a supernova explosion up close. Riding high to the south in the northern hemisphere nighttime sky in the wintertime, +0.5 magnitude Betelgeuse would most likely flare up to negative magnitudes and would easily be visible in the daytime if it popped off in the Spring or Fall. This time of year in June would be the worst, as Alpha Orionis only lies 15 degrees from the Sun!

An early springtime supernova in the future? Stellarium

Of course, this cosmic spectacle could kick off tomorrow… or thousands of years from now. Maybe, the light of Betelgeuse gone supernova is already on its way now, traversing the 650 light years of open space. Ironically, the last naked eye supernova in our galaxy – Kepler’s Star in the constellation Ophiuchus in 1604 – kicked off just before Galileo first turned his crude telescope towards the heavens in 1610.

You could say we’re due.

Weekly Space Hangout – June 9, 2017: Dr. Jeffrey Forshaw Presents “Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos”

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Dr. Jeffrey Forshaw is a British particle physicist with an interest in quantum chromodynamics (QCD) which is the study of the behavior of subatomic particles. Dr. Forshaw is the co-author (with Brian Cox) of Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos, which sends readers on an inspirational journey of scientific exploration.

Guests:

Sarah Marquart (Futurism.com / @SagaofSarah)

Their stories this week:

ALMA Finds Ingredient of Life Around Infant Sun-like Stars

Wow! Mystery Signal From Space Finally Explained

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

Announcements:

The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit http://www.wsh-crew.net/cosmicstory for all the details.

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

Into The Submillimeter: The Early Universe’s Formation

A new study looked at 52 submillimeter galaxies to help us understand the early ages of our Universe. Image: University of Nottingham/Omar Almaini

In order to make sense of our Universe, astronomers have to work hard, and they have to push observing technology to the limit. Some of that hard work revolves around what are called sub-millimeter galaxies (SMGs.) SMGs are galaxies that can only be observed in the submillimeter range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The sub-millimeter range is the waveband between the far-infrared and microwave wavebands. (It’s also called Terahertz radiation.) We’ve only had the capability to observe in the sub-millimeter range for a couple decades. We’ve also increased the angular resolution of telescopes, which helps us discern separate objects.

The submillimter wavelength is also called Terahertz Radiation, and is between Infrared and Microwave Radiation on the spectrum. Image: By Tatoute, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6884073
The submillimter wavelength is also called Terahertz Radiation, and is between Infrared and Microwave Radiation on the spectrum. Image: By Tatoute, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6884073

SMGs themselves are dim in other wavelengths, because they’re obscured by dust. The optical light is blocked by the dust, and absorbed and re-emitted in the sub-millimeter range. In the sub-millimeter, SMGs are highly luminous; trillions of times more luminous than the Sun, in fact.

This is because they are extremely active star-forming regions. SMGs are forming stars at a rate hundreds of times greater than the Milky Way. They are also generally older, more distant galaxies, so they’re red-shifted. Studying them helps us understand galaxy and star formation in the early universe.

ALMA is an array of dishes located at the Atacama Desert in Chile. Image: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), O. Dessibourg

A new study, led by James Simpson of the University of Edinburgh and Durham University, has examined 52 of these galaxies. In the past, it was difficult to know the exact location of SMGs. In this study, the team relied on the power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array (ALMA) to get a much more precise measurement of their location. These 52 galaxies were first identified by the Submillimeter Common-User Bolometer Array (SCUBA-2) in the UKIDSS Ultra Deep Survey.

There are four major results of the study:

  1. 48 of the SMGs are non-lensed, meaning that there is no object of sufficient mass between us and them to distort their light. Of these, the team was able to constrain the red-shift (z) for 35 of them to a median range of z-2.65. When it comes to extra-galactic observations like this, the higher the red-shift, the further away the object is. (For comparison, the highest red-shift object we know of is a galaxy called GN-z11, at z=11.1, which corresponds to about 400 million years after the Big Bang.
  2. Another type of galaxy, the Ultra-Luminous Infrared Galaxy (ULIRG) were thought to be evolved versions of SMGs. But this study showed that SMGs are larger and cooler than ULIRGs, which means that any evolutionary link between the two is unlikely.
  3. The team calculated estimates of dust mass in these galaxies. Their estimates suggest that effectively all of the optical-to-near-infrared light from co-located stars is obscured by dust. They conclude that a common method in astronomy used to characterize astronomical light sources, called Spectral Energy Distribution (SED), may not be reliable when it comes to SMGs.
  4. The fourth result is related to the evolution of galaxies. According to their analysis, it seems unlikely that SMGs can evolve into spiral or lenticular galaxies (a lenticular galaxy is midway between a spiral and an elliptical galaxy.) Rather, it appears that SMGs are the progenitors of elliptical galaxies.
The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101, NGC 5457) is a stunning example of a spiral galaxy. This study determines that there likely is no evolutionary link between sub-millimeter galaxies and spiral galaxies. Image: European Space Agency & NASA. CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36216331

This study was a pilot study that the team hopes to extend to many other SMGs in the future.

ALMA Captures Never-Before-Seen Details of Protoplanetary Disk

ALMA’s best image of a protoplanetary disc to date. This picture of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are in formation in this system.
ALMA’s best image of a protoplanetary disk to date. This picture of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are in formation in this system. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

TW Hydrae is a special star. Located 175 light years from Earth in the constellation Hydra the Water Snake, it sits at the center of a dense disk of gas and dust that astronomers think resembles our solar system when it was just 10 million years old. The disk is incredibly clear in images made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which employs 66 radio telescopes sensitive to light just beyond that of infrared.  Spread across more than 9 miles (15 kilometers), the ALMA array acts as a gigantic single telescope that can make images 10 times sharper than even the Hubble Space Telescope.

This photo of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, more than 16,000 feet (5000 meters) above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science and shows only one cluster of the 66 dishes. ALMA views the sky in "submillimeter" light, a slice of the spectrum invisible to the human eye that lies between infrared and radio waves. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)
This photo of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, more than 16,000 feet (5000 meters) above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science and shows only one cluster of the 66 dishes. ALMA views the sky in submillimeter light, a slice of the spectrum invisible to the human eye that lies between infrared and radio waves. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)

Astronomers everywhere point their telescopes at TW Hydrae because it’s the closest infant star in the sky. With an age of between 5 and 10 million years, it’s not even running on hydrogen fusion yet, the process by which stars convert hydrogen into helium to produce energy. TW Hydrae shines from the energy released as it contracts through gravity. Fusion and official stardom won’t begin until it’s dense enough and hot enough for fusion to fire up in its belly.

ALMA image of the planet-forming disk around the young, sun-like star TW Hydrae. The inset image (upper right) zooms in on the gap nearest to the star, which is at the same distance as the Earth is from the sun, and may show an infant version of our home planet emerging from the dust and gas. The additional concentric light and dark features represent other planet-forming regions farther out in the disk. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
ALMA image of the planet-forming disk around the young, sun-like star TW Hydrae. The inset image (upper right) zooms in on the gap nearest to the star, which is at the same distance as the Earth is from the sun, and may show an infant version of our home planet emerging from the dust and gas. The additional concentric light and dark features represent other planet-forming regions farther out in the disk. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

We see most protoplanetary disks at various angles, but TW’s has a face-on orientation as seen from Earth, giving astronomers a rare, undistorted view of the complete disk around the star. The new images show amazing detail, revealing a series of concentric bright rings of dust separated by dark gaps. There’s even indications that a planet with an Earth-like orbit has begun clearing an orbit.

“Previous studies with optical and radio telescopes confirm that TW Hydrae hosts a prominent disk with features that strongly suggest planets are beginning to coalesce,” said Sean Andrews with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and lead author on a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Blurry as it is, the detail here is staggering. It shows a gap about 93 million miles from the central starsuggesting that a planet with a similar orbit to Earth is forming there. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
The model (at left) of a protoplanetary disk shows a newly forming star at the center of a saucer-shaped dust cloud. At right, a close up of TW Hydrae taken by ALMA shows a gap about 93 million miles from the central star, suggesting that a planet with a similar orbit to Earth is forming there. Credit: (Left: L. Calcada). Right: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Pronounced gaps that show up in the photos above are located at 1.9 and 3.7 billion miles (3-6 billion kilometers) from the central star, similar to the average distances from the sun to Uranus and Pluto in the solar system. They too are likely to be the results of particles that came together to form planets, which then swept their orbits clear of dust and gas to sculpt the remaining material into well-defined bands. ALMA picks up the faint emission of submillimeter light emitted by dust grains in the disk, revealing details as small as 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) or the distance of Earth from the sun

This image compares the size of the solar system with HL Tauri and its surrounding protoplanetary disc. Although the star is much smaller than the Sun, the disc around HL Tauri stretches out to almost three times as far from the star as Neptune is from the Sun. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
This image compares the size of the solar system with HL Tauri and its surrounding protoplanetary disc. Although the star is much smaller than the Sun, the disc around HL Tauri stretches out to almost three times as far from the star as Neptune is from the Sun. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

“This is the highest spatial resolution image ever of a protoplanetary disk from ALMA, and that won’t be easily beaten in the future!” said Andrews.

Earlier ALMA observations of another system, HL Tauri, show that even younger protoplanetary disks — a mere 1 million years old — look remarkably similar.  By studying the older TW Hydrae disk, astronomers hope to better understand the evolution of our own planet and the prospects for similar systems throughout the Milky Way.

Weekly Space Hangout – June 26, 2015: Paul Sutter, CCAPP Visiting Fellow

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: This week we welcome Paul Sutter, the CCAPP Visiting Fellow who works on the cosmic microwave background and large-scale structure.

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – June 26, 2015: Paul Sutter, CCAPP Visiting Fellow”

Distant Stellar Nurseries: This Time, in High Definition

This article is a guest post by Anna Ho, who is currently doing research on stars in the Milky Way through a one-year Fulbright Scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany.

In the Milky Way, an average of seven new stars are born every year. In the distant galaxy GN20, an astonishing average of 1,850 new stars are born every year. “How,” you might ask, indignant on behalf of our galactic home, “does GN20 manage 1,850 new stars in the time it takes the Milky Way to pull off one?”

To answer this, we would ideally take a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in GN20, and a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in the Milky Way, and see what makes the former so much more productive than the latter.

But GN20 is simply too far away for a detailed look.

This galaxy is so distant that its light took twelve billion years to reach our telescopes. For reference, Earth itself is only 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself is thought to be about 14 billion years old. Since light takes time to travel, looking out across space means looking back across time, so GN20 is not only a distant, but also a very ancient, galaxy. And, until recently, astronomers’ vision of these distant, ancient galaxies has been blurry.

Consider what happens when you try to load a video with a slow Internet connection, or when you download a low-resolution picture and then stretch it. The image is pixelated. What was once a person’s face becomes a few squares: a couple of brown squares for hair, a couple of pink squares for the face. The low-definition picture makes it impossible to see details: the eyes, the nose, the facial expression.

A face has many details and a galaxy has many varied stellar nurseries. But poor resolution, a result simply of the fact that ancient galaxies like GN20 are separated from our telescopes by vast cosmic distances, has forced astronomers to blur together all of this rich information into a single point.

The situation is completely different here at home in the Milky Way. Astronomers have been able to peer deep into stellar nurseries and witness stellar birth in stunning detail. In 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope took this unprecedentedly detailed action shot of stellar birth at the heart of the Orion Nebula, one of the Milky Way’s most famous stellar nurseries:

hs-2006-01-a-xlarge_web
A detailed close-up of stellar birth. Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

There are over 3,000 stars in this image: The glowing dots are newborn stars that have recently emerged from their cocoons. Stellar cocoons are made of gas: thousands of these gas cocoons sit nestled in immense cosmic nurseries, which are rich with gas and dust. The central region of that Hubble image, encased by what looks like a bubble, is so clear and bright because the massive stars within have blown away the dust and gas they were forged from. Majestic stellar nurseries are scattered all over the Milky Way, and astronomers have been very successful at uncloaking them in order to understand how stars are made.

Observing nurseries both here at home and in relatively nearby galaxies has enabled astronomers to make great leaps in understanding stellar birth in general: and, in particular, what makes one nursery, or one star formation region, “better” at building stars than another. The answer seems to be: how much gas there is in a particular region. More gas, faster rate of star birth. This relationship between the density of gas and the rate of stellar birth is called the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law. In 1959, the Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt raised the question of how exactly increasing gas density influences star birth, and forty years later, in an illustration of how scientific dialogues can span decades, his American colleague Robert Kennicutt used data from 97 galaxies to answer him.

Understanding the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law is crucial for determining how stars form and even how galaxies evolve. One fundamental question is whether there is one rule that governs all galaxies, or whether one rule governs our galactic neighborhood, but a different rule governs distant galaxies. In particular, a family of distant galaxies known as “starburst galaxies” seems to contain particularly productive nurseries. Dissecting these distant, highly efficient stellar factories would mean probing galaxies as they used to be, back near the beginning of the universe.

Enter GN20. GN20 is one of the brightest, most productive of these starburst galaxies. Previously a pixelated dot in astronomers’ images, GN20 has become an example of a transformation in technological capability.

In December 2014, an international team of astronomers led by Dr. Jacqueline Hodge of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the USA, and comprising astronomers from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Austria, were able to construct an unprecedentedly detailed picture of the stellar nurseries in GN20. Their results were published earlier this year.

The key is a technique called interferometry: observing one object with many telescopes, and combining the information from all the telescopes to construct one detailed image. Dr. Hodge’s team used some of the most sophisticated interferometers in the world: the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in the New Mexico desert, and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer (PdBI) at 2550 meters (8370 feet) above sea level in the French Alps.

With data from these interferometers as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, they turned what used to be one dot into the following composite image:

hodgeetal-1412-2132_f7
GN20 in unprecedented detail (false color image). The 10 kpc (10,000 parsec) scale corresponds to 32,600 light-years. Image credit: Jacqueline Hodge et al. 2015

This is a false color image, and each color stands for a different component of the galaxy. Blue is ultraviolet light, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Green is cold molecular gas, imaged by the VLA. And red is warm dust, heated by the star formation it is shrouding, detected by the PdBI.

Unbundling one pixel into many enabled the team to determine that the nurseries in a starburst galaxy like GN20 are fundamentally different from those in a “normal” galaxy like the Milky Way. Given the same amount of gas, GN20 can churn out orders of magnitude more stars than the Milky Way can. It doesn’t simply have more raw material: it is more efficient at fashioning stars out of it.

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Some of the 66 radio antennas of ALMA, which can be linked to act like a much larger telescope. Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)

This kind of study is currently unique to the extreme case of GN20. However, it will be more common with the new generation of interferometers, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Located 5000 meters (16000 feet) high up in the Chilean Andes, ALMA is poised to transform astronomers’ understanding of stellar birth. State-of-the-art telescopes are enabling astronomers to do the kind of detailed science with distant galaxies – ancient galaxies from the early universe – that was once thought to be possible only for our local neighborhood. This is crucial in the scientific quest for universal physical laws, as astronomers are able to test their theories beyond our neighborhood, out across space and back through time.

Weekly Space Hangout – April 26, 2015: Special Cosmoquest Hangoutathon Edition

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Nancy Atkinson (UniverseToday.com / @Nancy_A)

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