Texas A&M Researchers Discover New Galaxy 30-Billion Light Years Away

By: Nicole Morten Email
By: Nicole Morten Email

Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin may always be rivals, but the two research giants have teamed up to detect the most distant galaxy ever found. It's estimated to be more than 30-billion light years away.

“It’s exciting to know we’re the first people in the world to see this,” said Vithal Tilvi, a Texas A&M postdoctoral research associate. “This is the biggest Hubble space telescope project ever undertaken."

It's a discovery that raises many questions about the evolution of the universe.

“We are looking at when the universe was only 700-millions years, just five percent of its current age,” Tilvi added. ""This galaxy we are seeing now as it appeared 13 billion years ago because light has been traveling for 13 billion years. In the meantime, the Universe is also expanding. So if were to take this expansion into account and measure the distance "Now", it would be about 30 billion light years."

In the meantime, the Universe is also expanding. So if were to take this expansion into account and measure the distance "Now", it would be about 30 billion light years."

Astronomers at Texas A&M and the University of Texas have been working together for three years, and have recently made a huge discovery. Pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope captured a galaxy that's more than 30-billion-light years away.

“We are living in a very special time and we are able to see this simply because we are born now,” Tilvi added. “If we were to be born after a few billion years, because of the expansion of the universe, these galaxies will move so far that light from these galaxies will never reach us.”

The galaxy, known by its catalog name “z8_GND_5296” not only fascinated researchers, but Tilvi says he’s inspired more than ever before. Tilvi says it took 13-billion years for the galaxy's light to make its way to earth. What's even more surprising is the new galaxy is forming stars very rapidly.

“Just to compare, our own Milky Way galaxy will form one sun-like star every year, but this galaxy is forming about 300 sun-like stars every year so it's very bright,” Tilvi said.

The discovery and research has been published in the most recent edition of the journal ‘Nature.’

According to a release from Texas A&M, “The paper’s lead author is Steven Finkelstein, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and 2011 Hubble Fellow who previously was a postdoctoral research associate at Texas A&M under the mentorship of Texas A&M astrophysicist Casey Papovich, who is second author as well as current mentor to Tilvi. Ten other international institutions collaborated on the effort, from California to Massachusetts and Italy to Israel.

“Because of its distance we get a glimpse of conditions when the universe was only about 700 million years old — only 5 percent of its current age of 13.8 billion years,” said Papovich, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and a member of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy since 2008.

Whereas our home, the Milky Way, creates about one or two Sun-like stars every year or so, this newly discovered galaxy forms around 300 a year and was observed by the researchers as it was 13 billion years ago. That’s the time it took for the galaxy’s light to travel to Earth. Just how mind-boggling is that? A single light year, which is the distance light travels in a year, is nearly six trillion miles. Because the universe has been expanding the whole time, the researchers estimate the galaxy’s present distance to be roughly 30 billion light years away.

“We were thrilled to see this galaxy,” Finkelstein said. “And then our next thought was, ‘Why did we not see anything else? We’re using the best instrument on the best telescope with the best galaxy sample. We had the best weather — it was gorgeous. And still, we only saw this emission line from one of our sample of 43 observed galaxies, when we expected to see around six. What’s going on?’”

The release further states, “The researchers suspect they may have zeroed in on the era when the universe made its transition from an opaque state in which most of the hydrogen is neutral to a translucent state in which most of the hydrogen is ionized. So it’s not necessarily that the distant galaxies aren’t there. It could be that they’re hidden from detection behind a wall of neutral hydrogen fog, which blocks the hydrogen emission signal.

Tilvi notes this is one of two major changes in the fundamental essence of the universe since its beginning — the other being a transition from a plasma state to a neutral state. He is leading the effort on a follow-up paper that will use a sophisticated statistical analysis to explore that transition further.

“Everything seems to have changed since then,” Tilvi said. “If it was neutral everywhere today, the night sky that we see wouldn’t be as beautiful. What I’m working on is studying exactly why and exactly where this happened. Was this transition sudden, or was it gradual?”

The Nature paper is the result of raw data gleaned from a powerful Hubble Space Telescope imaging survey of the distant universe called CANDELS, or Cosmic Assembly Near-Infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey. Using that data, the team was armed with 43 potential distant galaxies and set out to confirm their distances.

Tilvi, Finkelstein and a graduate student, Mimi Song traveled to the Hawaii to the W.M. Keck Observatory which sits on top of the summit of Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano and houses the two largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world, each standing eight stories tall, weighing 300 tons and equipped with 10-meter-wide mirrors.

According to the release, “Perhaps the largest and most important collaboration between the two universities’ astronomy programs is on the Giant Magellan Telescope, which, when complete in 2020, will create images 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope and enable astronomers to see earlier into the universe than ever before. Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin are two of 10 international institutions that are founding partners on the project.”

“The Giant Magellan Telescope will revolutionize this research,” Papovich said. “We are pushing the current telescopes to their limits and only seeing the brightest galaxies at these redshifts. It is slow-going with current telescopes. The GMT will have about five times the light gathering power of the biggest telescopes we’re using now, and it will make the measurements we’re doing that much easier. It will probably take the GMT to really understand the conditions in the very early universe.”

Nicholas Suntzeff, director of the Texas A&M astronomy program, said the University of Texas at Austin has been instrumental in helping to boost the College Station program’s international profile and providing access to telescopes and facilities. Suntzeff, who this year was appointed Texas A&M’s highest faculty rank, distinguished professor, himself serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“If we want to maintain Texas as one of the most important centers in the world for astronomy, we can no longer do it as individual universities,” Suntzeff said. “UT, Texas A&M and other universities must work together. Just as a strength of the University of California program is that its system is united, if we are going to be part of the biggest projects in the world, we must unite our forces. This is the only way we can rejoin the group of elite astronomical institutions that are doing the best science on the biggest telescopes. In Texas, we are on that path.”

The discovery raises more questions about what else could be out there.

"It is very likely there is life; it might not be exactly the same form as life on earth, it might be different, but it is very likely,” said Tilvi.

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