First Close-up of Star Factories in Distant Universe

March 22, 2010 11:53 by scibuff

For the first time, astronomers have made direct measurements of the size and brightness of regions of star-birth in a very distant galaxy, thanks to a chance discovery with the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope. The galaxy, later named SMM J2135-0102, is so distant, that its light has taken 10 billion years to reach us. A cosmic “gravitational lens” is magnifying the galaxy, giving us a close-up view that would otherwise be impossible. This lucky break reveals a hectic and vigorous star-forming life for galaxies in the early Universe, with stellar nurseries forming one hundred times faster than in more recent galaxies.

Distant star factories

This artist’s impression of the distant galaxy SMM J2135-0102 shows large bright clouds a few hundred light-years in size, which are regions of active star formation, These “star factories” are similar in size to those in the Milky Way, but one hundred times more luminous, suggesting that star formation in the early life of these galaxies is a much more vigorous process than typically found in local galaxies - Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The star factories in SMM J2135-0102 are similar in size to those in the Milky Way, but one hundred times more luminous, suggesting that star formation in the early life of these galaxies is a much more vigorous process than typically found in galaxies that lie nearer to us in time and space.

Thanks to a fortunate alignment between the cluster and the distant galaxy, the light signal from SMM J2135-0102 is magnified by a factor of 32. The magnification means that the star-forming clouds can be picked out in the galaxy, down to a scale of only a few hundred light-years. To see this level of detail without the help of the gravitational lens would need future telescopes such as ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), which is currently under construction on the same plateau as APEX. This lucky discovery has therefore given astronomers a unique preview of the science that will be possible in a few years time.

Source: ESA

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