Hubble Finds a Dead Galaxy that was Finished Making Stars Just a Billion Years After the Big Bang

Relying on Hubble and gravitational lensing, a team of astronomers made the unexpected discovery of a galaxy that ceased star formation just three billion years after the Big Bang.

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Terzan 5 May Unlock Secret to Milky Way’s Past

Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge (center of the galaxy) an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge's primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/F. Ferraro

Not many people have heard of the globular star cluster Terzan 5. It’s a big ball of stars resembling spilled sugar like so many other globular clusters. A very few globulars are bright enough to see with the naked eye; Terzan 5 is faint because it lies far away in the direction of the center of Milky Way galaxy inside its central bulge. Here, that formed at the galaxy’s birth are packed together in great numbers. They are the “old ones” of the Milky Way.

Today, a team of astronomers revealed that Terzan 5 is unlike any globular cluster known. Most Milky Way globulars contain stars of just one age, about 11-12 billion years. They formed around the same time as the Milky Way itself, used up all their available gas early to build stars and then spent the remaining billions of years aging. Most orbit the galaxy’s center in a vast halo like moths whirring around a bright light. Oddball Terzan 5 has two populations aged 12 billion and 4.5 billion years old and it’s located inside the galactic bulge.

The team used the cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope as well as a host of ground-based telescopes to find compelling evidence for the two distinct kinds of stars. Not only do they show a large gap in age, but the differ in the elements they contain. Terzan 5’s dual populations point to a star formation process that wasn’t continuous but dominated by two distinct bursts of star formation.

“This requires the Terzan 5 ancestor to have large amounts of gas for a second generation of stars and to be quite massive. At least 100 million times the mass of the Sun,” explains Davide Massari, co-author of the study.

Its unusual properties make Terzan 5 the ideal candidate for the title of “living fossil” from the early days of the Milky Way. Current theories on galaxy formation assume that vast clumps of gas and stars interacted to form the primordial bulge of the Milky Way, merging and dissolving in the process.

While the properties of Terzan 5 are uncommon for a globular cluster, they’re very similar to the stars found in the galactic bulge. Remnants of those gaseous clumps appear to have stuck around intact since the days of our galaxy’s birth, one of them evolving into the present day Terzan 5. That makes it a relic from the Milky Way’s infant days and one of the earliest galactic building blocks. Later, the cluster, which held onto some of its remaining gas, experienced a second burst of star formation.

“Some characteristics of Terzan 5 resemble those detected in the giant clumps we see in star-forming galaxies at high-redshift (galaxies just beginning to form in the remote universe in the far distant past), suggesting that similar assembling processes occurred in the local and in the distant universe at the epoch of galaxy formation,” said Dr. Francesco Ferraro from the University of Bologna, Italy, who headed up the team.

Terzan 5’s chandelier-like presence is helping astronomers understand how our galaxy was assembled. Reconstructing the past is one of the key occupations of astronomy. The present is continually departing with every passing moment. Soon enough, every piece of information slips into the past tense.  In the near-past, which records humanity’s comings and goings, details are often forgotten or lost. The deep past is even worse. With no one around and only scattered clues, astronomers continually look for fragmental remains that when woven into the fabric of a theory, reveal patterns and processes before we came to be.

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Most ‘Outrageous’ Luminous Galaxies Ever Observed

An artist's conception of an extremely luminous infrared galaxy similar to the ones reported in this paper. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Astronomers might be running out of words when it comes to describing the brightness of objects in the Universe.

Luminous, Super-Luminous, Ultra-Luminous, Hyper-Luminous. Those words have been used to describe the brightest objects we’ve found in the cosmos. But now astronomers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have found galaxies so bright that new adjectives are needed. Kevin Harrington, student and lead author of the study describing these galaxies, says, “We’ve taken to calling them ‘outrageously luminous’ among ourselves, because there is no scientific term to apply.”

The terms “ultra-luminous” and “hyper-luminous” have specific meanings in astronomy. An infrared galaxy is called “ultra-luminous” when it has a rating of about 1 trillion solar luminosities. At 10 trillion solar luminosities, the term “hyper-luminous” is used. For objects greater than that, at around 100 trillion solar luminosities, “we don’t even have a name,” says Harrington.

The size and brightness of these 8 galaxies is astonishing, and their existence comes as a surprise. Professor Min Yun, who leads the team, says, “The galaxies we found were not predicted by theory to exist; they’re too big and too bright, so no one really looked for them before.” These newly discovered galaxies are thought to be about 10 billion years old, meaning they were formed about 4 billion years after the Big Bang. Their discovery will help astronomers understand the early Universe better.

“Knowing that they really do exist and how much they have grown in the first 4 billion years since the Big Bang helps us estimate how much material was there for them to work with. Their existence teaches us about the process of collecting matter and of galaxy formation. They suggest that this process is more complex than many people thought,” said Yun.

Gravitational lensing plays a role in all this though. The galaxies are not as large as they appear from Earth. As their light passes by massive objects on its way to Earth, their light is magnified. This makes them look 10 times brighter than they really are. But event taking gravitational lensing into account, these are still impressive objects.

But it’s not just the brightness of these objects that are significant. Gravitational lensing of a galaxy by another galaxy is rare. Finding 8 of them is unheard of, and could be “another potentially important discovery,” says Yun. The paper highlights these galaxies as being among the most interesting objects for further study “because the magnifying property of lensing allows us to probe physical details of the intense star formation activities at sub-kpc scale…”

The team’s analysis also shows that the extreme brightness of these galaxies is caused solely by star formation.“The Milky Way produces a few solar masses of stars per year, and these objects look like they forming one star every hour,” Yun says. Harrington adds, “We still don’t know how many tens to hundreds of solar masses of gas can be converted into stars so efficiently in these objects, and studying these objects might help us to find out.”

It took a tag team of telescopes to discover and confirm these outrageously luminous galaxies. The team of astronomers, led by Professor Min Yun, used the 50 meter diameter Large Millimeter Telescope for this work. It sits atop an extinct volcano in Mexico, the 15,000 foot Sierra Negra. They also relied on the Herschel Observatory, and the Planck Surveyor.

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Distant Stellar Nurseries: This Time, in High Definition

This article is a guest post by Anna Ho, who is currently doing research on stars in the Milky Way through a one-year Fulbright Scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany. In the Milky Way, an average of seven new stars is born every year. In the distant galaxy GN20, […]

Solved: The Riddle of the Nova of 1670

It is a 17th century astronomical enigma that has persisted right up until modern times. On June 20, 1670, a new star appeared in the evening sky that gave 17th century astronomers pause. Eventually peaking out at +3rd magnitude, the ruddy new star in the modern day constellation of Vulpecula the Fox was visible for almost […]

Astronomers bypass visible light to map the Galaxy’s structure

A team of Brazilian astronomers used star clusters embedded in their natal clouds to trace the Galaxy’s structure. “Our results favour a four-armed spiral Galaxy, which includes the Sagittarius-Carina, Perseus, and Outer arms.”, remarked the group from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul. “Despite efforts aimed at improving our understanding of the Galaxy’s structure, questions remain. There is no consensus […]

Winds of Supermassive Black Holes Can Shape Galaxy-Wide Star Formation

The combined observations from two generations of X-Ray space telescopes have now revealed a more complete picture of the nature of high-speed winds expelled from super-massive black holes. Scientist analyzing the observations discovered that the winds linked to these black holes can travel in all directions and not just a narrow beam as previously thought. The black holes […]