Scientists spot galaxy formation in 10 billion year-old light

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Scientists may finally be able to understand how galaxies and galaxy clusters were formed in early Universe through their latest study involving 10 billion year-old light captured by Planck.

Using observations of two European Space Telescope missions, Planck and Herschel, an international team of scientists have managed to capture the oldest light in the universe and within that data the team identified what they believe are galaxies clumping together into the larger galaxy clusters we know today.

The Planck telescope catches light from the early days of the universe, known as the cosmic microwave background, while the Herschel telescope allowed researchers to zero in on some of the objects they saw in the Planck telescope data.

“The objects found by Planck appear to be clumps of young galaxies, seen early in the history of the universe,” said Douglas Scott, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC. “By studying them we may be able to learn how clusters of galaxies form and evolve.”

The universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old. In the early days, stars and galaxies formed quickly and assembled into large clusters. Today’s universe is full of these clusters of galaxies but researchers don’t understand how they formed.

In the study, the Planck telescope captured 10 billion year-old light and researchers identified the interesting objects they now believe are galaxy clusters. The results also offer researchers a unique opportunity to see galaxies when they were young; today’s nearby galaxies are quite old.

Using Planck’s short wavelength data scientists were able to identify 234 bright sources with characteristics that suggested they were located in the distant, early Universe, while Herschel data revealed that the vast majority of the Planck-detected sources are consistent with dense concentrations of galaxies in the early Universe, vigorously forming new stars.

“Hints of these kinds of objects had been found earlier in data from Herschel and other telescopes, but the all-sky capability of Planck revealed many more candidates for us to study,” says Hervé Dole of the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Orsay, lead scientist of the analysis published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Scott and UBC graduate student Todd MacKenzie are now working to understand the Planck objects better by studying them at a range of other wavelengths.

“What’s exciting is that we don’t know if we’re looking at something really bizarre or if these clumps are what would be expected. It will change our view of how these structures form,” said Scott.