Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Young Stars in Old Galaxies - a Cosmic Hide and Seek Game


Surprise Discovery with World`s Leading Telescopes

Combining data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), a group of European and American astronomers have made an unexpected, major discovery.

They have identified a huge number of "young" stellar clusters, only a few billion years old , inside an "old" elliptical galaxy (NGC 4365), probably aged some 12 billion years. For the first time, it has been possible to identify several distinct periods of star-formation in a galaxy as old as this one.

Elliptical galaxies like NGC 4365 have until now been considered to have undergone one early star-forming period and thereafter to be devoid of any star formation. However, the combination of the best and largest telescopes in space and on the ground has now clearly shown that there is more than meets the eye. This important new information will help to understand the early history of galaxies and the general theory of star formation in the Universe.

Do elliptical galaxies only contain old stars?

One of the challenges of modern astronomy is to understand how galaxies, those large systems of stars, gas and dust, form and evolve. In this connection, a central question has always been to learn when most of the stars in the Universe formed. Did this happen at a very early stage, within a few billion years after the Big Bang? Or were a significant number of the stars we now observe formed much more recently?

Spectacular collisions between galaxies take place all the time, triggering the formation of thousands or even millions of stars, cf. ESO PR Photo 29b/99 of the dramatic encounter between NGC 6872 and IC 4970. However, when looking at the Universe as a whole, most of its stars are found in large elliptical galaxies (this refers to their form) whose overall appearance has so far led us to believe that they, and their stars as well, are very old, indeed among the oldest objects in the Universe.

These elliptical galaxies do shine with the diffuse, reddish glow normally associated with stars that are many billions of years old. However, what is really the underlying mix of stars that produces this elderly appearance? Could perhaps a significant number of much younger stars be "hiding" among the older ones?

Whatever the case, this question must obviously be looked into, before it is possible to claim understanding of the evolution of these old galaxies. It is a very challenging investigation and it is only now that new and more detailed observations with the world`s premier telescopes have been obtained that cast more light on this central question and thus on the true behaviour of some of the major building blocks of the Universe.

Cosmic archaeology

In order to identify the constitutents of the stellar "cocktail" in elliptical galaxies, a team of European and American astronomers [2] observed massive stellar clusters in and around several nearby galaxies. These clusters, referred to as "globular" because of their shape, are present in large numbers around most galaxies and together they form a kind of "skeleton" within their host galaxies.

These "bones" receive an imprint for every episode of star formation they undergo. Thus, by reading the ages of the globular clusters in a galaxy, it is possible to identify the past epoch(s) of active star formation in that galaxy.

This is like digging into the ruins of an ancient archaeological city site and to find those layers and establish those times when the city underwent bursts of building activity. In this way, by the study of the distribution and ages of the globular clusters in an elliptical galaxy, astronomers can reveal when many of its stars were formed.

A surprise discovery

The team combined images in visual light of a number of galaxies from Hubble`s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) with infrared images obtained with the multi-mode ISAAC instrument on the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). When measuring very accurately the colours of the globular clusters in one of these galaxies, NGC 4365 that is a member of the large Virgo Cluster of galaxies, they discovered to their great surprise that many of these clusters are only a few billion years old, i.e. much younger than the age of most other stars in that galaxy, roughly 12 billion years.

In fact, the astronomers were able to identify three major groups of globular clusters in NGC 4365. First, there is an old population of clusters of metal-poor stars, then there are some clusters of old, but metal-rich stars and now, seen for the first time, a third population of clusters with young and metal-rich stars.

"We needed the combination of the Hubble and the VLT with the latest space- and ground-based astronomical technology to break this new ground", says group leader Markus Kissler-Patig from the European Southern Observatory Headquarters in Garching (Germany). "Once we had found those young clusters, we then went on to observe them spectroscopically with another of the world`s giant telescopes, the 10-m Keck on Hawaii - and this fully confirmed our results."

A new important clue to the evolution of the Universe

This is a surprising discovery since the stars in giant elliptical galaxies were until now believed to have formed exclusively early on in the history of the Universe.

However, it is now clear that some of the old galaxies may have been hiding their true nature and have indeed experienced much more recent periods of major star formation.

This is priceless new information for the current attempts to understand the early history of galaxies and the general theory of star formation in the Universe.

More information

The information presented in this Press Release is based on a research article that has been accepted for publication in the European journal "Astronomy & Astrophysics" ("Extragalactic Globular Clusters in the Near-Infrared: II. The Globular Cluster Systems of NGC 3115 and NGC 4365" by Thomas H. Puzia, Stephen E. Zepf, Markus Kissler-Patig, Michael Hilker, Dante Minniti and Paul Goudfrooij; astro-ph/0206147).

Richard West | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

nachricht Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus
20.10.2016 | The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>