10-billion-year-old cosmos mapped

Thousands of galaxies crowd into this Herschel image of the distant Universe.

Thousands of galaxies crowd into this Herschel image of the distant Universe. Each dot is an entire galaxy containing billions of stars.

  • Early galaxies grouped near dark matter
  • Map made using Herschel Space Observatory
  • Largest telescope ever put into space

For more than a decade, astronomers have been puzzled by bright galaxies in the distant universe that appear to be forming stars at phenomenal rates. What prompted the prolific star creation, they wondered. And what kind of environment did these galaxies inhabit?

Now, using a super-sensitive camera/spectrometer on the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have mapped the skies as they appeared 10 billion years ago.

The scientists discovered that these glistening galaxies preferentially occupy regions of the universe containing more dark matter and that collisions probably caused the abundant star production.

“All indications are that these galaxies are…crashing, merging, and possibly settling down at centres of large dark-matter halos,” said Asantha Cooray of the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

The information will enable scientists to adapt conventional theories of galaxy formation to accommodate the strange, star-filled versions.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope.

Largest space telescope

The European Space Agency’s Herschel observatory carries the largest astronomical telescope operating in space today; it collects data at far-infrared wavelengths invisible to the naked eye.

One of three cameras on Herschel, SPIRE has let Cooray and colleagues survey large areas of the sky, about 60 times the size of the full Moon.

The data analysed in this study was among the first to come from the Herschel Multi-Tiered Extragalactic Survey, the space observatory’s largest project.

Seb Oliver, a University of Sussex professor who leads the survey, called the findings exciting.

“It’s just the kind of thing we were hoping for from Herschel,” he said, “and was only possible because we can see so many thousands of galaxies. It will certainly give the theoreticians something to chew over.”

The Herschel Multi-Tiered Extragalactic Survey will continue to collect images over larger areas of the sky in order to build up a more complete picture of how galaxies have evolved and interacted over the past 10 billion years.

Adapted from information issued by UC Irvine / ESA & SPIRE Consortium & HerMES consortia.

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