Washington: New observations by a Caltech-led team have discovered dozens of starburst galaxies that were churning out stars when the universe was just a billion years old.
Previously, astronomers didn't know whether galaxies could form stars at such high rates so early in time.
The discovery enables astronomers to study the earliest bursts of star formation and to deepen their understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved.
Shining with the energy of over a hundred trillion suns, these newly discovered galaxies represent what the most massive galaxies in our cosmic neighborhood looked like in their star-making youth.
"I find that pretty amazing. These aren't normal galaxies. They were forming stars at an extraordinary rate when the universe was very young-we were very surprised to find galaxies like this so early in the history of the universe," said Joaquin Vieira, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and leader of the study.
The astronomers found dozens of these galaxies with the South Pole Telescope (SPT), a 10-meter dish in Antarctica that surveys the sky in millimeter-wavelength light-which is between radio waves and infrared on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The team then took a more detailed look using the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile's Atacama Desert.
The new observations represent some of ALMA's most significant scientific results yet, Vieira said.
With ALMA, the astronomers found that more than 30 percent of the starburst galaxies are from a time period just 1.5 billion years after the big bang.
Previously, only nine such galaxies were known to exist, and it wasn't clear whether galaxies could produce stars at such high rates so early in cosmic history. Now, with the new discoveries, the number of such galaxies has nearly doubled, providing valuable data that will help other researchers constrain and refine theoretical models of star and galaxy formation in the early universe.
But what's particularly special about the new findings, Vieira noted, is that the team determined the cosmic distance to these dusty starburst galaxies by directly analyzing the star-forming dust itself.
Previously, astronomers had to rely on a cumbersome combination of indirect optical and radio observations using multiple telescopes to study the galaxies. But because of ALMA's unprecedented sensitivity, Vieira and his colleagues were able make their distance measurements in one step, he says. The newly measured distances are therefore more reliable and provide the cleanest sample yet of these distant galaxies.
The measurements were also made possible because of the unique properties of these objects, the astronomers said. For one, the observed galaxies were selected because they could be gravitationally lensed-a phenomenon predicted by Einstein in which another galaxy in the foreground bends the light from the background galaxy like a magnifying glass. This lensing effect makes background galaxies appear brighter, cutting the amount of telescope time needed to observe them by 100 times.
Secondly, the astronomers took advantage of a fortuitous feature in these galaxies' spectra-which is the rainbow of light they emit-dubbed the "negative K correction."
Normally, galaxies appear dimmer the farther away they are-in the same way a lightbulb appears fainter the farther away it is. But it turns out that the expanding universe shifts the spectra in such a way that light in millimeter wavelengths doesn't appear dimmer at greater distances. As a result, the galaxies appear just as bright in these wavelengths no matter how far away they are-like a magic lightbulb that appears just as bright no matter how distant it is.
"To me, these results are really exciting because they confirm the expectation that when ALMA is fully available, it can really allow astronomers to probe star formation all the way up to the edge of the observable universe," says Fred Lo, who, while not a participant in the study, was recently a Moore Distinguished Scholar at Caltech.
Additionally, observing the gravitational lensing effect will help astronomers map the dark matter-the mysterious unseen mass that makes up nearly a quarter of the universe-in the foreground galaxies.
These results represent only about a quarter of the total number of sources discovered by Vieira and his colleagues with the SPT, and they anticipate finding additional distant, dusty, starburst galaxies as they continue analyzing their data set.
The team has described their findings in a paper being published online on March 13 in the journal Nature and in two others that have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
First Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013, 12:09