UK astronomers Elizabeth Stanway, Andrew Bunker and Richard McMahon at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, England, have used three of the most powerful telescopes in existence to identify some of the farthest galaxies yet seen. But at the same time, they have encountered a cosmic conundrum: it looks as if there were fewer galaxies forming stars at this early stage in the history of the Universe than in the more recent past. Their results, which will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, show for the first time, that astronomers may be probing back to the era when the first stars and galaxies were forming.
Stanway, Bunker and McMahon used the unique power of the Hubble Space Telescope and analysed publicly-available images taken in the direction of the southern hemisphere constellation of Fornax (the Oven) with the new Advanced Camera for Surveys as part of the Great Observatory Origins Deep Survey (GOODS) project. They identified half a dozen objects likely to be galaxies 95 per cent of the way across the observable Universe. The redshifts of these galaxies are about 6 and they are so far away that radiation from them has taken about 13 billion years to reach us. They existed when the Universe was less than a billion years old and seven billion years before the Earth and Sun formed. Intervening gas clouds absorbed visible light from them long before it reached Earth but their infrared light can be detected - and it is their infrared colours which lead the researchers to believe that they lie at such immense distances.
They also used infrared images taken with one of the 8-metre telescopes forming the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile to study these galaxies. "The ESO pictures allowed us to distinguish very distant galaxies at the edge of the observable Universe from objects nearby," said graduate student Elizabeth Stanway, who has identified the galaxies as part of her research for a doctorate in astrophysics at Cambridge.
Elizabeth Stanway | alfa
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