Earliest Galaxies in the Universe Spied by Astronomers

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 15, 2006
The earliest known galaxies in the universe, which formed during the universe's "dark age" nearly 13 billion years ago, have been spied by two teams of astronomers.

The discoveries, reported separately in this week's issue of the journal Nature, suggest that galaxies were forming just 700 million years after the birth of the universe.

Theory holds that the universe formed 13.7 billion years ago when an extremely dense concentration of mass rapidly expanded in an event known as the big bang.

(See related news: "Proof of Big Bang Seen by Space Probe, Scientists Say" [March 2006].)

The universe has been expanding ever since, so astronomers are able to age galaxies by computing how much the wavelength of their light has stretched—or redshifted—as the expansion takes the galaxies farther from Earth.

The redder the light is, the older and more distant the galaxy.

(See National Geographic magazine's "Beyond the Big Bang.")

The detection of such ancient galaxies adds intrigue to theories of how the very first galaxies formed, according to astronomers.

Were there many large, young galaxies in the early universe that are obscured from astronomers' view by abundant gases absorbing their light?

Or were galaxies rare and small way back then, as a prevailing theory suggests, and later clumped together to form larger galaxies such as the Milky Way?

"We believe that we need both these processes to explain what we see," Masanori Iye, a professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, said in an email.

Most Distant

Iye and his colleagues used the Subaru Telescope Facility in Hilo, Hawaii, to find the most distant galaxy known in the universe.

The galaxy, called IOK-1, formed about 750 million years after the big bang—60 million years closer to the event than the previous record holder.

Given the number of galaxies found during a later epoch about 810 million years ago, the researchers had expected to find as many as six galaxies like IOK-1.

But the comparative rarity of objects like IOK-1 means that the universe must have changed significantly over the 60 million years that separate the two epochs, the team suggests.

Iye and colleagues believe that they are witnessing the last phase of a process known as reionization.

According to Iye, about 380,000 years after the fiery hot big bang, the universe cooled so much that protons and electrons recombined to form neutral hydrogen.

This is known as the beginning of the dark age of the universe, because neutral hydrogen absorbs the light from stars.

As more galaxies started to form about 300 million years later, the hot stars heated the intergalactic medium and gradually reionized the neutral hydrogen back to protons and electrons.

The ionized hydrogen then became more transparent, allowing the galaxies' light to pass through.

Iye said the new results support the idea that neutral hydrogen was still abundant 750 million years after the big bang, blocking even older galaxies from view.

"We are starting to see the last phase of cosmic reionization, or the dawn of the cosmic dark age," he said.

Iye added that the discovery also supports the "hierarchical" theory of galaxy formation, which suggests that big, bright galaxies formed as smaller galaxies collided and merged.

"The epoch we have probed is yet in this critical stage," he said.

Rare Ancients

The second study in Nature also supports the hierarchical theory.

Astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found a large jump in the number of formed galaxies between 700 million and 900 million years after the big bang.

Their technique is based on analysis of data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The method cannot precisely age galaxies, but it does give a good estimate, the team says.

The Santa Cruz researchers detected only one galaxy formed at around 700 million years after the big bang but hundreds of galaxies 200 million years later.

"There must have been a lot of merging of smaller galaxies during that time," Garth Illingsworth, a co-author of the study, said in a press statement.

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