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Dark galaxies of the early universe spotted for the first time

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 10:01
Published on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 10:00

For the first time, dark galaxies — an early phase of galaxy formation, predicted by theory but unobserved until now — have been spotted. These objects are essentially gas-rich galaxies without stars. Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, an international team has detected these elusive objects by observing them glowing as they are illuminated by a quasar. The team report their results in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A field of galaxies, with some circledAn image of the region of the sky around the quasar HE0109-3518 (click to enlarge). The quasar is marked with a red circle near the centre of the image, whilst the 12 dark galaxies are marked with blue circles. Credit: ESO, Digitized Sky Survey 2 and S. Cantalupo (UCSC)Dark galaxies are small, gas-rich galaxies in the early Universe that are very inefficient at forming stars. They are predicted by theories of galaxy formation and are thought to be the building blocks of today's bright, star-filled galaxies. Astronomers think that they may have fed large galaxies with much of the gas that later formed into the stars that exist today.

Because they are essentially devoid of stars, these dark galaxies don't emit much light, making them very hard to detect. For years astronomers have been trying to develop new techniques to confirm the existence of these galaxies. Small absorption dips in the spectra of background sources of light have hinted at their existence. However, this new study marks the first time that such objects have been seen directly.

"Our approach to the problem of detecting a dark galaxy was simply to shine a bright light on it." explains Simon Lilly (ETH Zurich, Switzerland), co-author of the paper. "We searched for the fluorescent glow of the gas in dark galaxies when they are illuminated by the ultraviolet light from a nearby and very bright quasar. The light from the quasar makes the dark galaxies light up in a process similar to how white clothes are illuminated by ultraviolet lamps in a night club."

The team took advantage of the large collecting area and sensitivity of the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and a series of very long exposures, to detect the extremely faint fluorescent glow of the dark galaxies. They used the FORS2 instrument to map a region of the sky around the bright quasar HE 0109-3518, looking for the ultraviolet light that is emitted by hydrogen gas when it is subjected to intense radiation. Because of the expansion of the Universe, this light is actually observed as a shade of violet by the time it reaches the VLT.

"After several years of attempts to detect fluorescent emission from dark galaxies, our results demonstrate the potential of our method to discover and study these fascinating and previously invisible objects," says Sebastiano Cantalupo (University of California, Santa Cruz), lead author of the study.

Zoomed-in images of the 12 dark galaxiesZoomed images of the 12 dark galaxies, marked with green circles (click to enlarge). Credit: ESO, Digitized Sky Survey 2 and S. Cantalupo (UCSC)The team detected almost 100 gaseous objects which lie within a few million light-years of the quasar. After a careful analysis designed to exclude objects where the emission might be powered by internal star-formation in the galaxies, rather than the light from the quasar, they finally narrowed down their search to 12 objects. These are the most convincing identifications of dark galaxies in the early Universe to date.

The astronomers were also able to determine some of the properties of the dark galaxies. They estimate that the mass of the gas in them is about 1 billion times that of the Sun, typical for gas-rich, low-mass galaxies in the early Universe. They were also able to estimate that the star formation efficiency is suppressed by a factor of more than 100 relative to typical star-forming galaxies found at similar stage in cosmic history.

"Our observations with the VLT have provided evidence for the existence of compact and isolated dark clouds. With this study, we've made a crucial step towards revealing and understanding the obscure early stages of galaxy formation and how galaxies acquired their gas", concludes Sebastiano Cantalupo.

The MUSE integral field spectrograph, which will be commissioned on the VLT in 2013, will be an extremely powerful tool for the study of these objects.

 


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Images and captions

Images with captions are available on the ESO web page relating to this release.

 


Contacts

Sebastiano Cantalupo
University of California
Santa Cruz, USA
Tel: +1 831 459 5891
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Simon J. Lilly
Institute for Astronomy, ETH Zurich
Zurich, Switzerland
Tel: +41 44 633 3828
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Richard Hook
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT & Survey Telescopes Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Mobile: +49 151 1537 3591
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More information

This research is presented in a paper entitled "Detection of dark galaxies and circum-galactic filaments fluorescently illuminated by a quasar at z=2.4", by Cantalupo et al. which will appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The team is composed of Sebastiano Cantalupo (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA), Simon J. Lilly (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) and Martin G. Haehnelt (Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge, United Kingdom).

A pdfcopy and a preprint of the research paper are available, as are photos of the VLT.

 


Notes for editors

  • Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance illuminated by a light source. In most cases, the emitted light has longer wavelength than the source light. For instance, fluorescent lamps transform ultraviolet radiation — invisible to us — into optical light. Fluorescence appears naturally in some compounds, such as rocks or minerals but can be also added intentionally as in detergents that contain fluorescent chemicals to make white clothes appear brighter under normal light.
  • Quasars are very bright, distant galaxies that are believed to be powered by supermassive black holes at their centres. Their brightness makes them powerful beacons that can help to illuminate the surrounding area, probing the era when the first stars and galaxies were forming out of primordial gas.
  • This emission from hydrogen is known as Lyman-alpha radiation, and is produced when electrons in hydrogen atoms drop from the second-lowest to the lowest energy level. It is a type of ultraviolet light. Because the Universe is expanding, the wavelength of light from objects gets stretched as it passes through space. The further light has to travel, the more its wavelength is stretched. As red is the longest wavelength visible to our eyes, this process is literally a shift in wavelength towards the red end of the spectrum — hence the name 'redshift'. The quasar HE 0109-3518 is located at a redshift of z = 2.4, and the ultraviolet light from the dark galaxies is shifted into the visible spectrum. A narrow-band filter was specially designed to isolate the specific wavelength of light that the fluorescent emission is redshifted to. The filter was centred at around 414.5 nanometres in order to capture Lyman-alpha emission redshifted by z=2.4 (this corresponds to a shade of violet) and has a bandpass of only 4 nanometres.
  • The star formation efficiency is the mass of newly formed stars over the mass of gas available to form stars. They found these objects would need more than 100 billion years to convert their gas into stars. This result is in accordance with recent theoretical studies that have suggested that gas-rich low-mass haloes at high redshift may have very low star formation efficiency as a consequence of lower metal content.
  • The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".
  • The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS, www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.
  • Follow the RAS on Twitter via @RoyalAstroSoc