Our solar system – our sun and family of planets – is thought to have been built from clumps of space stuff sticking together. Likewise, astronomers expected the first galaxies – those that formed shortly after the Big Bang – to resemble the little dwarf galaxies we see today, so that they’d serve as building blocks for larger galaxies that came later. And so nature surprised us by revealing examples of massive, star-filled galaxies seen when the cosmos was less than a billion years old. Now, new observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile have revealed two giant galaxies seen even farther away, and longer ago, when the universe was only 780 million years old, or about 5 percent its current age. These giant, early galaxies – collectively known as SPT0311-58 – appear to be nestled inside an even-more-massive dark matter halo, containing several trillion times the mass of our sun.
They said these two giant, early galaxies are close to each other, less than the distance from Earth to the center of our Milky Way galaxy. That’s why, they think, the galaxies will shortly merge to form the largest galaxy ever observed at that period in cosmic history. Dan Marrone, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson and lead author on the paper, said in a statement:
With these exquisite ALMA observations, astronomers are seeing the most massive galaxy known in the first billion years of the universe in the process of assembling itself.
Located in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, ALMA is one of the world’s most advanced tools for astronomical observing. It’s an interferometer of radio telescopes, which has been fully operation only since March of 2013. It’s made possible by an international partnership between Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile. But even ALMA couldn’t see so far back into space and time without help.
In this case, the help came from nature itself, which produces what is called a a gravitational lens whenever an intervening massive object, like a galaxy or galaxy cluster, bends the light from more distant galaxies. In a universe of at least 100 billion galaxies (or more), this happen pretty often, but can be tricky to observe. Although galaxies between us and SPT0311-58 bent and magnified their light, sophisticated computer models were required to reconstruct the image of SPT0311-58 as these galaxies would appear in an unaltered state.
Yet the process of teasing out this data from the observations yielded yet more information according to these astronomers:
This ‘de-lensing’ process provided intriguing details about the galaxies, showing that the larger of the two is forming stars at a rate of 2,900 solar masses per year. It also contains about 270 billion times the mass of our sun in gas and nearly 3 billion times the mass of our sun in dust.
Justin Spilker at the University of Texas at Austin, a co-author on the study, commented:
That’s a whopping large quantity of dust, considering the young age of the system.
The astronomers believe the larger galaxy’s pace of star formation was likely triggered by a close encounter with its slightly smaller companion, which already hosts about 35 billion solar masses of stars and is also forming stars at a rate of about 540 solar masses per year.
The new observations also allowed the researchers to infer the presence of a truly massive dark matter halo surrounding both galaxies. Dark matter is thought to provide the pull of gravity that causes the universe to collapse into structures such as galaxies, groups and clusters of galaxies and so on. By comparing their calculations with current cosmological predictions, the researchers found that this halo is one of the most massive that should exist at that time.
… when most of intergalactic space was suffused with an obscuring fog of cold hydrogen gas. As more stars and galaxies formed, their energy eventually ionized the hydrogen between the galaxies, revealing the universe as we see it today.
In any case, our next round of ALMA observations should help us understand how quickly these galaxies came together and improve our understanding of massive galaxy formation during reionization.
Bottom line: Astronomers thought galaxies in the early universe would be small. But they’ve just spotted 2 giant galaxies – collectively known as SPT0311-58 – at a time when the universe was only 780 million years old, or about 5 percent its current age.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.