09 February 2014

Frontier fields project locates one of the most distant galaxies ever

Image Caption: This image of the galaxy cluster Abell 2744 was obtained with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The zoomed image shows the region around the galaxy Abell2744_Y1, one of the most distant galaxy candidates known, harkening back to a time when the universe was 650 million years old. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope helped to narrow in on the galaxy's great distance. Credit: NASA / ESA / STScI / IAC

By analyzing data collected by the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, an international team of astronomers have discovered what could be one of the most distant galaxies ever discovered, existing at a time when the universe was no more than approximately 650 million years old.

The galaxy, which is known as Abell2744 Y1, is roughly 30 times smaller than the Milky Way and is producing about 10 times more stars, which the researchers said is typical for young universe galaxies. It was discovered by investigators led by astronomers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and La Laguna University (ULL) during their initial analysis of observations of the Abell 2744 cluster of galaxies.

According to NASA, the research was conducted as part of the Frontier Fields mission, a three-year, 840-orbit initiative that was launched in October 2013 and combines three of the most powerful space telescopes in the world (Hubble, Spitzer and the Chandra X-ray Observatory) with naturally occurring “zoom lenses” in space.

As part of the program, Spitzer will be used to view infrared light, while Hubble will be used to see visible and shorter-wavelength infrared light and Chandra sees X-rays. The goal of the project is to locate galaxies that are up to 100 times fainter than could normally be detected by any of the three observatories alone.

Frontier Fields will image a total of six galaxy clusters in all, with Hubble images of the regions being used to spot candidate distant galaxies and Spitzer confirming that the galaxies are actually as far as they appear. This will be accomplished thanks in part to gravitational lensing, a phenomenon that enhances their power.

If these early results, which have been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics Letters, are confirmed, it would make Abell2744 Y1 one of the most distant galaxies yet discovered. It reportedly has a redshift (a measure of how much its light has been shifted to redder wavelengths due to the universe’s expansion) of eight. The furthest confirmed galaxy has a redshift of just over seven, though other candidates have redshifts of up to 11.

“We expected to find very distant galaxies close to the cluster core, where the light amplification is maximum. However, this galaxy is very close to the edge of the Hubble image where the light is not strongly amplified,” said Nicolas Laporte, a post-doctoral researcher at the IAC. “We are really lucky that we could find it in the small field of view of Hubble. In a related study… more galaxies are analyzed but none is more distant than Abell2744 Y1.”

“Observations of the Frontier Fields by Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra are in an early stage but have already shown the exceptional potential of this new project to study the first luminous objects in the Universe,” the Institute added. “As it happened with other Hubble initiatives on deep fields, many other observatories all over the world and in space will join the effort with additional observations of the Frontier Fields.”

The Abell 2744 cluster, which apparently was formed when four smaller galaxy clusters crashed into one another, is also known as Pandora’s Cluster because the mixture of elliptical and colorful spiral galaxies that formed it resulted in some unusual, never-before-seen cosmic phenomenon, according to reports published in January.



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