The Monster Galaxy at the Dawn of Time –“What Does Its Discovery Imply?”

 

 

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age,” announced Pascal Oesch, the principal investigator of this project at the University of Geneva and head of the Galaxy Build-Up at Cosmic Dawn team. It’s mind-boggling by comparison to think that Earth is only 4.5 billion years old.

The results reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. “It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon,” explained investigator Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Previously, the Universe’s most distant galaxy was known as EGS8p7, whose light was redshifted by an extra factor of 8.63 before it reached Earth,  from 13.24 billion years ago: when the Universe was just 573 million years old, or only 4% of its current age.

The newest record-holder has had its light redshifted by a whopping factor of 11.1, meaning the light is even older: it was emitted 13.40 billion years ago, when the Universe was only 407 million years old, or closer in time to the Big Bang than any other galaxy ever seen before.. You have to be extremely not just skilled, but also extremely lucky to see a galaxy this far back in time using the Hubble Space Telescope.

By pushing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, an international team of astronomers has shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. This surprisingly bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major.

This animation shows the location of galaxy GN-z11, which is the farthest galaxy ever seen. The video begins by locating the Big Dipper, then showing the constellation Ursa Major. It then zooms into the GOODS North field of galaxies, and ends with a Hubble image of the young galaxy. GN-z11 is shown as it existed 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the big bang, when the universe was only three percent of its present age.

 

The discovery team included scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California.

Astronomers continue closing in on the first galaxies that formed in the universe. The new Hubble observations take astronomers into a realm that was once thought to be only reachable with NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

This measurement provides strong evidence that some unusual and unexpectedly bright galaxies found earlier in Hubble images are really at extraordinary distances. Previously, the team had estimated GN-z11’s distance by determining its color through imaging with Hubble and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Now, for the first time for a galaxy at such an extreme distance, the team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to precisely measure the distance to GN-z11 spectroscopically by splitting the light into its component colors.

Astronomers measure large distances by determining the “redshift” of a galaxy. This phenomenon is a result of the expansion of the universe; every distant object in the universe appears to be receding from us because its light is stretched to longer, redder wavelengths as it travels through expanding space to reach our telescopes. The greater the redshift, the farther the galaxy.

“Our spectroscopic observations reveal the galaxy to be even farther away than we had originally thought, right at the distance limit of what Hubble can observe,” said Gabriel Brammer of STScI, second author of the study.

Astronomers have uncovered another ancient cosmic artifact 11 billion light-years from Earth: the oldest spiral galaxy ever seen. The newly discovered galaxy, known as A1689B11, shown at the top of the page, is an ancestor of modern spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way, which are defined by long tentacles of gas, dust and stars that wrap around the galaxy’s central bulge.

“Spiral galaxies are exceptionally rare in the early universe, and this discovery opens the door to investigating how galaxies transition from highly chaotic, turbulent discs to tranquil, thin discs like those of our own Milky Way galaxy,” said Renyue Cen, a senior research astronomer at Princeton University.

The two small, inset images above show actual observations of the most ancient spiral galaxy ever observed. The rest of the image is an artist’s illustration showing how a massive galaxy cluster bends and magnifies the light from the distant galaxy, making it visible to astronomers on Earth.
Credit: James Josephides

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has started a new mission to shed light on the evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe. The BUFFALO survey will observe six massive galaxy clusters and their surroundings. The first observations show the galaxy cluster Abell 370 and a host of magnified, gravitationally lensed galaxies around it.

While the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has already detected some of the most distant galaxies known, their numbers are small, making it hard for astronomers to determine if they represent the Universe at large.

Massive galaxy clusters like Abell 370, can help astronomers find more of these distant objects. The immense masses of galaxy clusters make them act as cosmic magnifying glasses. A cluster’s mass bends and magnifies light from more distant objects behind it, uncovering objects otherwise too faint for even Hubble’s sensitive vision. Using this cosmological trick—known as strong gravitational lensing—Hubble is able to explore some of the earliest and most distant galaxies in the Universe.

Numerous galaxies are lensed by the mass of Abell 370. The most stunning demonstration of gravitational lensing can be seen just below the center of the cluster. Nicknamed “the Dragon”, this extended feature is made up of a multitude of duplicated images of a spiral galaxy which lies beyond the cluster.

BUFFALO’s main mission, however, is to investigate how and when the most massive and luminous galaxies in the Universe formed and how early galaxy formation is linked to dark matter assembly. This will allow astronomers to determine how rapidly galaxies formed in the first 800 million years after the Big Bang—paving the way for observations with the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope.

Driven by the Frontier Fields observations, BUFFALO will be able to detect the most distant galaxies approximately ten times more efficiently than its progenitor. The BUFFALO survey will also take advantage of other space telescopes which have already observed the regions around the clusters. These datasets will be included in the search for the first galaxies.

The extended fields of view will also allow better 3-dimensional mapping of the mass distribution—of both ordinary and dark matter—within each galaxy cluster. These maps help astronomers learn more about the evolution of the lensing galaxy clusters and about the nature of dark matter.

Before astronomers determined the distance for GN-z11, the most distant galaxy measured spectroscopically had a redshift of 8.68 (13.2 billion years in the past). Now, the team has confirmed GN-z11 to be at a redshift of 11.1, nearly 200 million years closer to the Big Bang.

“This is an extraordinary accomplishment for Hubble. It managed to beat all the previous distance records held for years by much larger ground-based telescopes,” said investigator Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. “This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The combination of Hubble’s and Spitzer’s imaging reveals that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. However, the newborn GN-z11 is growing fast, forming stars at a rate about 20 times greater than our galaxy does today. This makes an extremely remote galaxy bright enough for astronomers to find and perform detailed observations with both Hubble and Spitzer.

These findings provide a tantalizing preview of the observations that the James Webb Space Telescope will perform after it is launched into space in 2018. “Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory,” Oesch said.

“This new discovery shows that the Webb telescope will surely find many such young galaxies reaching back to when the first galaxies were forming,” added Illingworth.

What are the prospects for discovering life in these ancient objects? The universe may actually be a lonelier place than previously thought. Of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, some astrophysicists argue that only one in 10 can support complex life like that on Earth. Everywhere else, stellar explosions known as gamma ray bursts would regularly wipe out any life forms more elaborate than microbes. The detonations also kept the universe lifeless for billions of years after the big bang, researchers say.

“It’s kind of surprising that we can have life only in 10% of galaxies and only after 5 billion years,” says Brian Thomas, a physicist at Washburn University in Topeka.

The Daily Galaxy via ESA/Hubble Information Centre and NASA/Hubble http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/distance-record.html

Credits: Video – NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI); science – NASA, ESA, P. Oesch (Yale University), G. Brammer (STScI), P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)

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