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When did galaxies settle down?

Astronomers have long sought to understand exactly how the universe evolved from its earliest history to the cosmos we see around us in the present day. In particular, the way that galaxies form and develop is still a matter for debate. Now a group of researchers have used the collective efforts of the hundreds of thousands of people that volunteer for the Galaxy Zoo project to shed some light on this problem. They find that galaxies may have settled into their current form some two billion years earlier than previously thought.

galaxyzoo COS 5227 small A Hubble Space Telescope image of a spiral galaxy seen when the Universe was less than a third of its current age, yet showing the same barred feature as much older, settled disk galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Kartaltepe (NOAO), C. Lintott (Oxford), H. Ferguson (STScI), S. Faber (UCO). Click for a full size imageDr Brooke Simmons of the University of Oxford and her collaborators describe the work in a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team set Zoo volunteers the task of classifying the shapes of tens of thousands of galaxies observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. These objects are typically very distant, so we see them as they appeared more than 10 billion years ago, when the universe was about 3 billion years old, less than a quarter of its present age.

The newly classified galaxies are striking in that they look a lot like those in today’s universe, with disks, bars and spiral arms. But theorists predict that these should have taken another 2 billion years to begin to form, so things seem to have been settling down a lot earlier than expected.

ngc1365 rot smallA European Southern Observatory image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, rotated to match the orientation of the first image. NGC 1365 is about 56 million light years away, so we see it as it appears 56 million years ago, or 10 billion years later than the galaxy in the HST image. Credit: ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron. Click for a full size imageBrooke comments: “When we started looking for these galaxies, we didn't really know what we'd find. We had predictions from galaxy simulations that we shouldn't find any of the barred features that we see in nearby, evolved galaxies, because very young galaxies might be too agitated for them to form.”

‘But we now know that isn't the case. With the public helping us search through many thousands of images of distant galaxies, we discovered that some galaxies settle very early on in the Universe.”


Media contact

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Science contact

Dr Brooke Simmons
University of Oxford
Tel: +44 (0)1865 273637
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Further information

The new work appears in “Galaxy Zoo: CANDELS Barred Disks and Bar Fractions”, B. D. Simmons et al, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Oxford University Press, 445, pp. 3466-3474.

A preprint of the paper is available on the arXiv


Notes for editors

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), 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 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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