The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NROA) announced late last week (December 1, 2016) that astronomers used radio telescopes to scrutinize a giant galaxy forming at the center of a cluster of protogalaxies in the early universe. Their observations show the giant galaxy appears to be forming within what they say is a “surprisingly dense soup” of molecular gas. This is the Spiderweb Galaxy, not yet a single galaxy, but still a clustering of protogalaxies, or galaxies emerging from their cloud of cold gas. Astronomers see this cluster not as it appears today, but as it was more than 10 billion years ago, when the universe was approximately 3 billion years old.
The astronomers reported their findings in the December 2, 2016 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Science.
This is different from what we see in the nearby universe, where galaxies in clusters grow by cannibalizing other galaxies. In this cluster, a giant galaxy is growing by feeding on the soup of cold gas in which it is submerged.
And that’s just what you might expect in the very young universe, when some of the earliest stars and galaxies were just beginning to form.
The presence of [this gas] indicates a larger quantity of molecular hydrogen, which is much more difficult to detect. The astronomers estimated that the molecular gas totals more than 100 billion times the mass of the sun.
Not only is this quantity of gas surprising … but the gas also must be unexpectedly cold, about minus-200 degrees Celsius. Such cold molecular gas is the raw material for new stars.
The [carbon monoxide] in this gas indicates that it has been enriched by the supernova explosions of earlier generations of stars. The carbon and oxygen in the CO was formed in the cores of stars that later exploded.
The astronomers said that the ATCA observations revealed the total extent of the gas, and the VLA observations, much more narrowly focused, provided another surprise. Most of the cold gas was found, not within the protogalaxies, but instead between them. Astronomer Preshanth Jagannathan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico said:
This is a huge system, with this molecular gas spanning three times the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.
Earlier observations of the Spiderweb, made at ultraviolet wavelengths, have indicated that rapid star formation is ongoing across most of the region occupied by the gas. Jagannathan said:
It appears that this whole system eventually will collapse into a single, gigantic galaxy.
Bottom line: Radio astronomers studying the Spiderweb Galaxy – a giant galaxy forming inside a cluster of protogalaxies – saw that it is forming inside a “surprisingly dense soup” of molecular gas.
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.