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Early galaxy went through 'teenage growth spurt'

Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 March 2010 21:36
Published on Tuesday, 23 March 2010 12:43

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An international team of astronomers, led by Dr Mark Swinbank, RAS Norman Lockyer Fellow, have found a massive galaxy in the early Universe creating stars like our Sun up to 100 times faster than the modern-day Milky Way.

Image: NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy cluster MACS J2135-010217 (centre), which is gravitationally lensing the distant galaxy SMM J2135-0102. Credit: NASA / ESA / HST

Early galaxy went through “teenage growth spurt”
Royal Astronomical Society Press Release
RAS PN 10/13 (EMBARGOED) 18th March 2010
Embargoed until 1800 GMT / 1400 EDT, Sunday, 21st March 2010
Early galaxy went through “teenage growth spurt” (RAS PN 10/13, EMBARGOED) 

Scientists have found a massive galaxy in the early Universe creating stars like our Sun up to 100 times faster than the modern-day Milky Way.

The team of international researchers, led by Durham University scientist and Royal Astronomical Society Norman Lockyer Fellow Dr Mark Swinbank, described the finding as like seeing “a teenager going through a growth spurt”.

Due to the amount of time it takes light to reach Earth the scientists observed the galaxy, known as SMM J2135-0102, as it would have appeared 10 billion years ago – just three billion years after the Big Bang.

They found four discrete star-forming regions within the galaxy and each one was more than 100 times brighter than star-forming regions in the Milky Way like the Orion Nebula familiar to amateur astronomers.

The team say their results, published online today (Sunday, 21st March), in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, suggest that star formation was more rapid and vigorous in the early Universe as galaxies went through periods of huge growth.

Their findings, funded in the UK by the RAS and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, provide a unique insight into how stars formed in the early Universe, the scientists added.

Lead author Dr Mark Swinbank, of the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University said: “This galaxy is like a teenager going through a growth spurt.

‘We don’t fully understand why the stars are forming so rapidly but our results suggest that stars formed much more efficiently in the early Universe than they do today.

‘Galaxies in the early Universe appear to have gone through rapid growth and stars like our Sun formed much more quickly than they do today.”

The scientists estimate that the observed galaxy is producing stars at a rate equivalent to 250 Suns per year.

The findings support earlier research led by Durham University. In 2009 Durham scientists found that the galaxy MS1358arc, an object so far away that we see it as it appeared 12.5 billion years ago, was forming stars more rapidly than expected.

SMM J2135-0102 was found using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope, which is operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).  Follow-up observations were carried out by combining the natural gravitational lens of nearby galaxies with the powerful Submillimeter Array telescope based in Hawaii to magnify the galaxy even further.

Dr Swinbank added: “The magnification reveals the galaxy in unprecedented detail, even though it is so distant that its light has taken about 10 billion years to reach us.

“In follow-up observations with the Submillimeter Array telescope we’ve been able to study the clouds where stars are forming in the galaxy with great precision.”

Carlos De Breuck, a co-author of the paper, from ESO, said: “The star formation in this galaxy’s large dust clouds is unlike that in the nearby Universe.

“However, our observations suggest that we should be able to use underlying physics from the densest cores in nearby galaxies to understand star birth in these more distant galaxies.”

CONTACTS

Dr Mark Swinbank
RAS Norman Lockyer Fellow
Institute for Computational Cosmology
Department of Physics
Durham University
Tel: +44 (0)191 334 3786
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Leighton Kitson
Durham University Media Relations Office
Tel: +44 (0)191 334 6074
Mob: +44 (0)7939 596 850
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Dr Robert Massey
RAS Press and Policy Officer
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Note to broadcasters: An ISDN broadcast quality line is available via the Durham University Media Relations Office on the contact details above. The ISDN number is +44 (0)191 386 2749.

IMAGES AND MOVIES

A series of still images and movies (with captions and credits) are available for download from: http://astro.dur.ac.uk/~ams/Nature/

Images are also available from Leighton Kitson. (See above for contact details but please note that he will only be checking e-mail sporadically over the weekend so please try the web link first).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Intense Star-Formation within Resolved Compact Regions in a Galaxy at z=2, Swinbank, AM, et al, Nature, DOI:10.1038/nature08880

Once the paper is published electronically, the DOI can be used to retrieve the abstract and full text from the Nature web site www.nature.com/nature/index.html (abstracts are available to everyone, full text only to subscribers).

A copy of this paper is also available from Durham University Media Relations Office by contacting +44 (0)191 334 6074 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

The observations were carried out with the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope which is operated by National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the APEX telescope which is operated by the European Southern Observatory, the Sub-mm Array (SMA) which is operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer, which is supported by INSU/CNRS (France), Max Planck Gesellschaft (MPG; Germany), and Instituto Geogra´fico acional (IGN; Spain).

Access to ESO telescopes for UK astronomers is made possible by a subscription paid for by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The RAS Norman Lockyer Fellowship provides support for 3 years to enable an outstanding research worker to conduct a self-directed programme of research in any astronomical topic.

Useful web links

Institute for Computational Cosmology: www.icc.dur.ac.uk/
Nature: www.nature.com/nature/index.html
Green Bank Telescope: www.gb.nrao.edu/GBT/
European Southern Observatory: www.eso.org/public/
The Submillimeter Array telescope: www.cfa.harvard.edu/sma/
Royal Astronomical Society: www.ras.org.uk/
STFC: www.scitech.ac.uk/

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