Cornell University-led team operating the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS), the largest of the three main instruments on NASAs Spitzer Space Telescope, has discovered a mysterious population of distant and enormously powerful galaxies radiating in the infrared spectrum with many hundreds of times more power than our Milky Way galaxy. Their distance from Earth is about 11 billion light years, or 80 percent of the way back to the Big Bang.
Virtually everything about this new class of objects is educated speculation, the researchers say, since the galaxies are invisible to ground-based optical telescopes with the deepest reach into the universe. "We think we have an idea of what they are, but we are not necessarily correct," says Cornell senior research associate in astronomy Dan Weedman.
Among the more probable ideas are that these mysterious bodies are ultraluminous infrared galaxies, powered either by an active galactic nuclei (AGN) or by a starburst, a massive burst of star formation. AGNs are powered by the in-fall of matter to a massive black hole, while massive starbursts often are triggered by the collision of two or more galaxies. What makes the objects studied by the Spitzer team stand out is that previously known AGNs are "not nearly as powerful, far away, or as dust-enshrouded" as these bodies are, says Weedman.
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