Ancient celestial city undergoing rapid growth discovered

It is the densest and most active protocluster ever identified at so great a distance, 11 billion light-years away from Earth.

Updated: Sep 22, 2012, 18:37 PM IST

Washington: Using the Multi-Object Infrared Camera and Spectrograph (MOIRCS) mounted on the Subaru Telescope, a team of astronomers has discovered a protocluster of galaxies in the midst of a vigorous process of formation.

It is the densest and most active protocluster ever identified at so great a distance, 11 billion light-years away from Earth.

The star formation rate in the protocluster is intense, sometimes reaching a rate over 100 times greater than that of the Milky Way Galaxy. Although old, inactive elliptical galaxies dominate present-day galaxy clusters, the recently discovered protocluster is a site where progenitors of clusters of current elliptical galaxies were just forming and growing rapidly.

It will serve as an ideal laboratory for investigating how a cluster develops and how a special, dense environment can influence the formation and evolution of galaxies.

The properties of galaxies strongly depend upon where they reside. Some galaxies occupy crowded, gravitationally bound regions called galaxy clusters and groups while others live in deserted areas called general fields.

In the present-day universe, galaxy clusters generally contain old, elliptical galaxies that are not actively forming stars, and general fields usually encompass young disk galaxies that are actively forming stars.

Why do these galaxies segregate into different habitats in the universe? Investigation of the formation of distant protoclusters that are progenitors of local galaxy clusters may provide an answer.

Clusters or “ancient cities” of galaxies are not everywhere. Discovering them in their adolescence, when the surrounding environment influences their development, is likely to yield the best basis for studying how clusters of galaxies form.

The team led by Dr. Masao Hayashi (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, or NAOJ) and Dr. Tadayuki Kodama (Subaru Telescope, NAOJ) focused their search on star-forming galaxies associated with the protocluster USS 1558-003, which is 11 billion light-years way from Earth.

This target is a very dense region of old, mature or “red-burning” galaxies, and occurs in the epoch from 9 to 11 billion years ago when the “adolescent” galaxies were growing vigorously.

The team used MOIRCS mounted on the Subaru Telescope for their research; they also fitted MOIRCS with a narrow-band filter customized for this target to capture the H-alpha emission lines coming from the star-forming regions. In addition, they searched for extremely red galaxies that are inactive and passively evolving.

The wide-field observations revealed that three notable galaxy groups of various sizes (Figure 2) make up the protocluster. The number of galaxies concentrated in these clumps is very high, about 15 times greater than that of general fields in the universe at the same cosmic time.

No other region known so far in the ancient universe of 11 billion years ago or more has so many strongly clustered galaxies. The intense star-forming activity in the entire observed region of the protocluster amounts to new star formation equivalent to 10,000 Suns per year.

The activity is analogous to watching the swift construction of an ancient, developing city, when elliptical galaxies were very young and growing rapidly in a dense environment.

Another important discovery about this protocluster is that almost all of the transitioning red burning galaxies tend to be confined to the dense clumps. Their apparent preference for a location in the densest environment probably means that the protocluster is actually in its growth phase and having some environmental effects on the galaxies.