Magazine article Science News

Going the Distance: Galaxies May Hail from Early Universe

Magazine article Science News

Going the Distance: Galaxies May Hail from Early Universe

Article excerpt

Using a cosmic magnifying glass to peer into the deepest reaches of space, two teams of astronomers have discovered tiny galaxies that may be among the most distant known. Images suggest that one of the galaxies is so remote that the light now reaching Earth left this starlit body when the 13.7-billion-year-old universe was only about 700 million years old.

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The discoveries are important, notes Tim Heckman of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, because they probe a special time in the universe, when the cosmos changed from a place filled with neutral gas to a place ionized by the emergence of the first substantial population of stars and black holes. Studies of distant galaxies help pinpoint when that critical era happened.

All of the galaxies are so small that even the keen eye of the Hubble Space Telescope couldn't have spotted them without nature providing a gravitational assist. According to Einstein's theory of general relativity, a massive foreground body acts like a lens, bending and magnifying light from a more remote galaxy that lies along the same line of sight to Earth.

That's why Garth Illingworth and Rychard Bouwens of the University of California, Santa Cruz and their colleagues went hunting for distant galaxies around a nearby duster of galaxies called Abell 1689.

The cluster's gravity distorts images of background galaxies, bending them into arcs and magnifying their brightness. One of these galaxies proved especially intriguing because it appeared bright at several infrared wavelengths recorded by Hubble but disappeared in visible light.

That's a sign that the galaxy, dubbed A1689-zD1, is both extraordinarily distant and youthful. The data also indicate that the galaxy forms stars at a rate equivalent to five suns a year, typical of the small galaxies thought to be common in the early universe, says Bouwens. …

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