Using Distant Galaxies to Study the Early Universe. (Once upon a Time in the Cosmos)

By Cowen, R. | Science News, April 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

Using Distant Galaxies to Study the Early Universe. (Once upon a Time in the Cosmos)


Cowen, R., Science News


Peering far back in time, two teams of astronomers say they've found some of the universe's earliest galaxies. The findings suggest that less than a billion years after the Big Bang, some galaxies were already minting the equivalent of several suns a year, a prodigious rate of star formation.

The data also hint that the average density of these galaxies is only about one, sixth that of similarly bright star-forming galaxies observed roughly a half-billion years later in cosmic history.

"We are seeing some of the first galaxies to be born, suggests Richard G. McMahon of the University of Cambridge in England, a coauthor of one of the two studies. "A decrease in the density as we go back in time means we are approaching the `dark ages' the time when there were no galaxies."

Other researchers say that could be an overstatement. The decline in the number of bright, star-forming galaxies may only indicate that earlier, the cosmos had many more small, faint galaxies that are difficult to detect, notes Charles C. Steidel of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Astronomers generally assume that small galaxies coalesce to build larger ones. Steidel says, "It is nice to see [this assumption] backed up with some real data, over an area of sky larger than [astronomers have recently examined]."

A team of astronomers used the 8-meter Subaru telescope atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea to identify 73 galaxies that might be extraordinarily distant. Spectra of two of these galaxies revealed that one of them is the most distant galaxy now known, residing 12.8 billion light-years from Earth. The other galaxy, the third most distant galaxy known, is only slightly closer to Earth, report Yoshiaki Taniguchi of Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and his colleagues in the April Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan. …

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