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Unstrange Phenomena

27 January 2011

Cosmic Bloodhound: Hubble Telescope Finds Distant Ancient Galaxy?

Check out what Hubble has found in the primordial beginnings of our universe.  
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From Denny:  The Hubble Telescope continues to range far into the universe, chasing the scent of the ancient galaxies, pointing the way for us to find. Astronomers are excited about the latest find. How often every day do you find an ancient galaxy? When your spouse asks you how your day was when you arrive home you get to say, ever so  nonchalantly, "Oh, we just discovered an ancient galaxy today that took its light over 13 billion years to get here just to say hello."

Ancient galaxy in constellation Fornax (Latin for furnace)

Located in the constellation Fornax, this tiny little smudge of light is a mere fraction of the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.  Turns out the ancient galaxy was already in existence when our universe was only 480 million years old.  To date it is the oldest and most distant galaxy found by astronomers, a real primordial wonder.  It does excite the imagination to wonder what is behind this galaxy.

Cosmic Dark Ages 

Astronomers are still waiting to confirm their findings.  What does their discovery mean if confirmed?  The universe first began in its primordial fog of what astronomers have termed as "the dark ages."  This discovery could herald insight into that early time when stars and galaxies first began their journey, burning their way out of that primordial fog.  This discovery may yield knowledge that our earliest time of the universe was a lot emptier than previously thought.  In fact, this one ancient galaxy may have been the only galaxy former during that time.

Birth rate of stars 

Astronomers discovered something new about the birth rate of stars from this observation, concluding that stars are birthed far faster than previously believed.  They found out that the birth rate increased tenfold during the 200 million year period between this newly discovered galaxy and the next earliest known ones.  Those galaxies date to 650 million years after the Big Bang.

“This is clearly an era when galaxies were evolving rapidly,” the astronomers commented  in an article published in the journal Nature. The team was led by Rychard J. Bouwens of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, and Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz

How they found it: light wavelength

When Hubble was refurbished back in  2009, sure enough they could see better when they aimed Hubble into a patch of sky known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.  Employing Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 they turned it onto the constellation Fornax.  This camera is very sensitive to the long-wave "heat" radiation we know as "infrared."

The general consensus is that our universe is currently expanding, with galaxies literally flying away from us while the universe expands.  Therefore, the light emitted from these galaxies is now shifted to longer wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.  In astronomer lingo it's called "red-shifted."  The idea is that the farther away an object is - and the faster it recedes away from us - what happens is that the light gets stretched that much more. They use the analogy of how an emergency vehicle's siren sounds lower as it recedes away from us.

Astronomers observed that emitting from these ancient galaxies the visible light had been "red-shifted" well into the infrared zone by a tremendous factor of tenfold.  Primarily they have studied the galaxies dating from 600 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang occurred.  This most ancient galaxy discovered is but a hint of one.

Rychard Bouwens, co-author of the study, and his team, hunted any objects whose light had been red-shifted into infrared levels of light.  Their new discovery of a primordial galaxy is so remote they can only detect its light on the very longest of the infrared wavelengths (that currently Hubble can see).

To date over the past decade, these searches for the highest of the red-shift galaxies have found more than 6,000 galaxies in the time of 900 million to 2,000 million years.

Bouwens and his team are satisfied - after running simulations for a full year of testing - their conclusion is it is the most primordial galaxy yet found to date.  The next step to confirm this tiny smudge of light is truly a galaxy will come from the spectroscopic observations of James Webb Space Telescope.  The NASA Webb Telescope is not expected to launch until later this decade - and that's only if the funding is found to make it a reality.

What astronomers believe so far to be true about our universe

Pulling from a mountain of data and sources, astronomers believe that at about 200 million to 300 million years ago the first stars were formed following the Big Bang.  The universe continued to build more stars to the point that it possessed a veritable treasure chest by the time two and half billion years passed along.  Cosmologists think our universe is now in a kind of middle-aged slump.  Yeah, those wild days of partying are over for this universe and the grown-up days are upon us.

Mystery still unsolved: How did the universe become transparent? 

Cosmologists are of the current belief that as the universe cooled after the fires of the Big Bang there was this pea-soup fog of hydrogen gas.  It wrapped its arms to envelop the universe like a huge cosmic hug. During the next billion years that fog began to lift.  It was because high-energy radiation literally stripped the hydrogen atoms of their electrons by the process known as ionization.  That high-energy radiation is presumed to have originated from the early stars.  Astronomers think this process is what made the universe transparent.  However, scientists being what they are - curious and many times argumentative - the community cannot agree.  They are still arguing if enough stars or galaxies existed in the early universe that would be able to account for enough light to burn off that primordial fog.

The black hole argument as to why the universe is transparent

Some astronomers believe it may be that huge black holes are the culprits responsible for burning off the primordial dark ages of the universe. They say that with high-energy particles - and the radiation shed by matter in its death throes - that black holes could have whipped the space around them with such force as to clear the fog.

Dr. Bouwens is not yet ready to resort to the black hole theory burning off the dark ages.  He says we should consider there could be many more galaxies lurking in the noise just below the limits of Hubble's detection.

“We really are not probing faint enough with the current Hubble observations to see beyond the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Bouwens said.

To answer this mystery of the universe's transparency and more details about proving if this discovery is actually an ancient galaxy will have to wait until the Webb Telescope launch.  The Webb Telescope has been designed to find primordial galaxies and report back to us more information about the dark ages of our universe.  Let's hope they find the funding in record time.  After all, how often is it you get to go back in time billions of years to know a universe?

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Photo credits

Hubble back in time - Images: NASA, ESA, Garth Illingworth (University of California Santa Cruz) and Rychard Bouwens

Hubble Deep Field diagram from NASA

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