Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Structure of 'Baby Milky Way' Galaxy Seen for the First Time

Hydrogen Emission of Young Milky Way-Type Galaxy Graph

Hydrogen emission shows the structure of a young Milky Way-type galaxy, early in the stages of its formation.

Astronomers have gotten their first clear look at galaxy in the very early universe that could have evolved into a structure somewhat like the Milky Way.

Made up predominantly of gas when spotted while the Milky Way was only about 3 billion years old, the galaxy, DLA2222-0946, should one day evolve into a common spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. Yet its commonness is what makes it so important, as it should provide insights into the formation of the bulk of galaxies early in the life of the universe.

Infographic: How types of galaxies are identified. "It's sort of extraordinary for being ordinary," Regina Jorgenson, of the University of Hawaii, said in early January at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. [How Galaxies are Classified by Type (Infographic)

A light bulb on Mars

Jorgenson and her team used the Keck Telescope in Hawaii to obtain the first spatially resolved images of these young, normal galaxies. Although their existence has been known for decades, they have been a challenge to clearly resolve.

"It's equivalent to detecting a 50-watt light bulb on Mars," Jorgenson said.

Early galaxies contained primarily dust, the food for star formation. Jorgenson compared the process of galaxy formation to baking a cake, which requires a lot of different ingredients, the most of important of which is flour. In a galactic cake, the flour is equivalent to neutral gas, the prime fuel for star formation.

Gas doesn't shine like stars, so astronomers had to get creative to find it in distant space. Enter a quasar, a very bright and distant astronomical source. 

As light from a quasar passes through these kinds of galactic systems known as DLAs, scientists can take measurements of the clouds of gas that make them up.

"These DLAs contain most of the neutral gas in the universe at the time," Jorgenson said. "They contain most of the flour."

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