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Old Galaxies in the Young Universe


Very Large Telescope Unravels New Population of Very Old Massive Galaxies

Current theories of the formation of galaxies are based on the hierarchical merging of smaller entities into larger and larger structures, starting from about the size of a stellar globular cluster and ending with clusters of galaxies. According to this scenario, it is assumed that no massive galaxies existed in the young universe.

However, this view may now have to be revised. Using the multi-mode FORS2 instrument on the Very Large Telescope at Paranal, a team of Italian astronomers have identified four remote galaxies, several times more massive than the Milky Way galaxy, or as massive as the heaviest galaxies in the present-day universe. Those galaxies must have formed when the Universe was only about 2,000 million years old, that is some 12,000 million years ago.

The newly discovered objects may be members of a population of old massive galaxies undetected until now. The existence of such systems shows that the build-up of massive elliptical galaxies was much faster in the early Universe than expected from current theory.

Hierarchical merging

Galaxies are like islands in the Universe, made of stars as well as dust and gas clouds. They come in different sizes and shapes. Astronomers generally distinguish between spiral galaxies – like our own Milky Way, NGC 1232 or the famous Andromeda galaxy – and elliptical galaxies, the latter mostly containing old stars and having very little dust or gas. Some galaxies are intermediate between spirals and ellipticals and are referred to as lenticular or spheroidal galaxies.

Galaxies are not only distinct in shape, they also vary in size: some may be as “light” as a stellar globular cluster in our Milky Way (i.e. they contain about the equivalent of a few million Suns) while others may be more massive than a million million Suns. Presently, more than half of the stars in the Universe are located in massive spheroidal galaxies.

One of the main open questions of modern astrophysics and cosmology is how and when galaxies formed and evolved starting from the primordial gas that filled the early Universe. In the most popular current theory, galaxies in the local Universe are the result of a relatively slow process where small and less massive galaxies merge to gradually build up bigger and more massive galaxies. In this scenario, dubbed “hierarchical merging”, the young Universe was populated by small galaxies with little mass, whereas the present Universe contains large, old and massive galaxies - the very last to form in the final stage of a slow assembling process.

If this scenario were true, then one should not be able to find massive elliptical galaxies in the young universe. Or, in other words, due to the finite speed of light, there should be no such massive galaxies very far from us. And indeed, until now no old elliptical galaxy was known beyond a radio-galaxy at redshift 1.55 that was discovered almost ten years ago.

The K20 survey

In order to better understand the formation process of galaxies and to verify if the hierarchical merging scenario is valid, a team of Italian and ESO astronomers used ESO’s Very Large Telescope as a “time machine” to do a search for very remote elliptical galaxies. However, this is not trivial. Distant elliptical galaxies, with their content of old and red stars, must be very faint objects indeed at optical wavelengths as the bulk of their light is redshifted into the infrared part of the spectrum. Remote elliptical galaxies are thus among the most difficult observational targets even for the largest telescopes; this is also why the 1.55 redshift record has persisted for so long.

But this challenge did not stop the researchers. They obtained deep optical spectroscopy with the multi-mode FORS2 instrument on the VLT for a sample of 546 faint objects found in a sky area of 52 arcmin2 (or about one tenth of the area of the Full Moon) known as the K20 field, and which partly overlaps with the GOODS-South area. Their perseverance paid off and they were rewarded by the discovery of four old, massive galaxies with redshifts between 1.6 and 1.9. These galaxies are seen when the Universe was only about 25% of its present age of 13,700 million years.

For one of the galaxies, the K20 team benefited also from the database of publicly available spectra in the GOODS-South area taken by the ESO/GOODS team.

A new population of galaxies

The newly discovered galaxies are thus seen when the Universe was about 3,500 million years old, i.e. 10,000 million years ago. But from the spectra taken, it appears that these galaxies contain stars with ages between 1,000 and 2,000 million years. This implies that the galaxies must have formed accordingly earlier, and that they must have essentially completed their assembly at a moment when the Universe was only 1,500 to 2,500 million years old.

The galaxies appear to have masses in excess of one hundred thousand million solar masses and they are therefore of sizes similar to the most massive galaxies in the present-day Universe. Complementary images taken within the GOODS ("The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey") survey by the Hubble Space Telescope show that these galaxies have structures and shapes more or less identical to those of the present-day massive elliptical galaxies.

The new observations have therefore revealed a new population of very old and massive galaxies.

The existence of such massive and old spheroidal galaxies in the early Universe shows that the assembly of the present-day massive elliptical galaxies started much earlier and was much faster than predicted by the hierarchical merging theory. Says Andrea Cimatti (INAF, Firenze, Italy), leader of the team: ”Our new study now raises fundamental questions about our understanding and knowledge of the processes that regulated the genesis and the evolutionary history of the Universe and its structures.”

Richard West | alfa
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