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ALMA Witnesses Assembly of Galaxies in the Early Universe for the First Time

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 August 2015 13:00
Published on Wednesday, 22 July 2015 11:00

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a radio observatory sited in Chile, has been used to detect the most distant clouds of star-forming gas yet found in normal galaxies in the early Universe. The new observations allow astronomers to start to see how the first galaxies were built up and how they cleared the cosmic fog during the era of reionization. This is the first time that such galaxies have been seen as more than just faint blobs. The researchers, led by Prof Roberto Maiolino of the University of Cambridge, report their findings in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

eso1530a smallThis view is a combination of images from ALMA and the Very Large Telescope. The central object is a very distant galaxy, labelled BDF 3299, which is seen when the Universe was less than 800 million years old. The bright red cloud just to the lower left is the ALMA detection of a vast cloud of material that is in the process of assembling the very young galaxy. Credit: ESO/R. Maiolino. Click for a full size imageWhen the first galaxies started to form a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, the Universe was full of a fog of hydrogen gas. But as more and more brilliant sources — both stars and quasars powered by huge black holes — started to shine they cleared away the mist and made the Universe transparent to ultraviolet light. Astronomers call this the epoch of reionization, when the radiation from the first stars turned neutral material into ‘ions’ by removing the outermost electrons from atoms.

Little is known about these first galaxies, and until now they have just been seen as very faint blobs. But now new observations using ALMA are starting to change this. The observatory is both very sensitive and capable of mapping objects at high resolution, making it ideal for studying the features of the early Universe.

The team of astronomers trained ALMA on galaxies that were known to be seen only about 800 million years after the Big Bang (the light from the galaxies has travelled such an enormous distance that we see them as they appeared nearly 13 billion years ago). The astronomers were not looking for the light from stars, but instead for the faint glow of ionized carbon coming from the clouds of gas from which the stars were forming. They wanted to study the interaction between a young generation of stars and the cold clumps that were assembling into these first galaxies.

They were also not looking for the extremely brilliant rare objects — such as quasars and galaxies with very high rates of star formation — that had been seen up to now. Instead they concentrated on rather less dramatic, but much more common, galaxies that reionized the Universe and went on to turn into the bulk of the galaxies that we see around us now.

From one of the galaxies — given the label BDF 3299 — ALMA could pick up a faint but clear signal from the glowing carbon. However, this glow wasn’t coming from the centre of the galaxy, but rather from one side.

Co-author Prof Andrea Ferrara (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy) explains the significance of the new findings: “This is the most distant detection ever of this kind of emission from a ‘normal’ galaxy, seen less than one billion years after the Big Bang. It gives us the opportunity to watch the build-up of the first galaxies. For the first time we are seeing early galaxies not merely as tiny blobs, but as objects with internal structure!”

The astronomers think that the off-centre location of the glow is because the central clouds are being disrupted by the harsh environment created by the newly formed stars — both their intense radiation and the effects of supernova explosions — while the carbon glow is tracing fresh cold gas that is being accreted from the intergalactic medium.

By combining the new ALMA observations with computer simulations, it has been possible to understand in detail key processes occurring within the first galaxies. The effects of the radiation from stars, the survival of molecular clouds, the escape of ionizing radiation and the complex structure of the interstellar medium can now be calculated and compared with observations. BDF 3299 is likely to be a typical example of the galaxies responsible for reionization.

“We have been trying to understand the interstellar medium and the formation of the reionization sources for many years. Finally to be able to test predictions and hypotheses on real data from ALMA is an exciting moment and opens up a new set of questions. This type of observation will clarify many of the thorny problems we have with the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe,” adds Andrea Ferrara.

Roberto Maiolino concludes: “This study would have simply been impossible without ALMA, as no other instrument could reach the sensitivity and spatial resolution required. Although this is one of the deepest ALMA observations so far it is still far from achieving its ultimate capabilities. In future ALMA will image the fine structure of primordial galaxies and trace in detail the build-up of the very first galaxies.”


Media contact


Richard Hook
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Mob: +49 151 1537 3591
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Science contacts


Prof Roberto Maiolino
Cavendish Laboratory & Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)1223 761661
Mob: +44 (0)7557 774718
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Prof Andrea Ferrara
Scuola Normale Superiore
Pisa, Italy
Mob: +39 329 0715067
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Images and captions


A full set of images are available on the ESO website.


Further information


This research was presented in a paper “The assembly of “normal” galaxies at z∼7 probed by ALMA”, by R. Maiolino et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Oxford University Press.

The team is composed of R. Maiolino (Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom; Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom) S. Carniani (Cavendish Laboratory; Kavli Institute for Cosmology; Universitá di Firenze, Florence, Italy), A. Fontana (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), L. Vallini (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy; Universitá di Bologna, Bologna, Italy), L. Pentericci (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), A. Ferrara (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy), E. Vanzella (INAF–Bologna Astronomical Observatory, Bologna, Italy), A. Grazian (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), S. Gallerani (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy), M. Castellano (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), S. Cristiani (INAF–Trieste Astronomical Observatory, Trieste, Italy), G. Brammer (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, USA), P. Santini (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), J. Wagg (Square Kilometre Array Organization, Jodrell Bank Observatory, United Kingdom) and R. Williams (Cavendish Laboratory; Kavli Institute for Cosmology).


Notes for editors


The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA. Follow ALMA on Twitter

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. 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 a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”. Follow ESO on Twitter

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 organises 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. Follow the RAS on Twitter