"Baby Boom" galaxy cranks out cranky booming babies

By Phil Plait | July 10, 2008 4:01 pm

Before I get started, let me just preen a moment and say how much I loved writing that title.

But what’s it about? A rather non-descript galaxy was seen by Hubble and the Japanese Subaru telescope. It appeared with a lot of other galaxies in the field, and in optical light was no big deal. But then NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii — both sensitive to infrared light — took a look, and bang!

Or more properly, boom! Check this out:

Spitzer image of baby boom galaxy

That’s no Peter Max painting, that’s a composite of visible light (green and blue) and infrared light (red) of this galaxy. It doesn’t have a real name, but astronomers have nicknamed it the Baby Boom galaxy. Why? Because it’s cranking out stars at a rate 400 times that of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Yegads. That’s a lot of stars. In fact, it’s spewing them out so quickly that it could grow in size to be a massive galaxy like ours in about 50 million years. It took billions of years for us to get as beefy as we are.

We know the star formation rate by examining the infrared light from the galaxy. When stars are born, they create a lot of dust. This dust gets heated by the UV light booming out from the newly born stars, too, which heats the dust, making it emit infrared. So by knowing how much IR the galaxy emits, you can estimate how many stars are being born.

Stars are popping out of this galaxy like clowns from a little car at the circus.

This would be pretty unusual for any galaxy, but what makes this weirder is that this puppy is 12.3 billion light years away, meaning we’re seeing it when the Universe was only a little over 1.4 billion years old. That means this galaxy is pretty young, and so it’s very odd to see it being so fruitful and multiplying. Normally, galaxies get big by eating other partially or fully-formed galaxies. Not this one though. It’s self-made.

My guess is that it’s an exception, and something pretty unusual is going on with it. Most galaxies do in fact grow by eating, and this one is either suffering an unusual number of collisions — so its gas clouds collide and form stars very rapidly — or some other oddness is making it so eager to churn out stars. I don’t think this will affect normal models of galaxy formation much… unless we find lots more like it. But it will certainly provide clues on how galaxies behave in the early Universe, which can otherwise be a difficult thing to observe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures, Science

Comments (23)

  1. could grow in size to be a massive galaxy like ours in about 50 million years.

    the exact distance to the galaxy — a whopping12.3 billion light-years.

    So, it would have been ‘our size’ about 12 Billion years ago?

    J/P=?

  2. I wonder what this thing looks like now… A monster elliptical?
    Richard Drumm the Astronomy Bum

  3. BAC

    Loved your headline … maybe it’s just taking it’s cue from Norma Desmond and getting ready for it’s next big close up.

    BAC

  4. Akshat Tanksale

    How can the size of the galaxy grow by forming new stars? Won’t the size remain same (or reduce a little) because the gas clouds are actually collapsing on itself to form stars. I thought galaxies grow by eating other galaxies??

  5. Ian

    Yegads. That’s a lot of stars. In fact, it’s spewing them out so quickly that it could grow in size to be a massive galaxy like ours in about 50 million years. It took billions of years for us to get as beefy as we are.

    Hold on, I’m confused. How can a galaxy become more massive by producing stars? Isn’t the gas that the stars are made from already part of the galaxy?

  6. themadlolscientist

    Stars are popping out of this galaxy like clowns from a little car at the circus.

    =ROFLMAO!=

  7. Hugo

    Here’s one of those wide-eyed questions I should have asked when I was younger:

    The deeper we look into space, the younger the universe looks to us because light is taking a longer time to reach us (in a matter of speaking).

    So what happens when we look so deep into space that we’re before the big bang? What do astronomers expect to see, if anything?

    I should be wide-eyed more often.

  8. baryogenesis

    Could this example be more common in the early galaxy-forming universe? It would be interesting to see if more of these rapid star-birth galaxies are discovered as we push our observations further into the past with new telescopes.

  9. “The deeper we look into space, the younger the universe looks to us because light is taking a longer time to reach us (in a matter of speaking).”

    Well, Hugo, that’s one of the cool things about the Big Bang. The universe is still expanding, so in one sense we are “inside” the Big Bang. There is no “outside” of the Big Bang, when astronomers listen to the edge of the Universe there is nothing beyond – no space, no time, no anything. All of the “light” we see at the edge of the universe is the limit of space, which, along with time was created in the Big Bang.

    There was no “before” the Big Bang in our Universe.

  10. TMB

    Hugo: In principle, you’d expect to see nothing beyond that point. In reality, the “point beyond which you can’t see anything” is a little closer because the universe was opaque for its first 300,000 years or so. The farthest thing we can see is the light that was emitted at that point, which is known as the cosmic microwave background.

    [TMB]

  11. Blizno

    Can anyone hypothesize what that galaxy is like today, 12.3 billion years after the images we’ve…amazingly…captured, without that inconvenient nuisance of speed-of-light?

    Would this be a galaxy with lots of burned out stars and not so much hydrogen, assuming that it didn’t eat any other galaxies since then? Would it be rich with heavy elements from generations of star births and deaths?

    Did I mention that I am awed by our human brilliance in gathering such images from so very far away and long ago?
    Hurray, us! Humans are soooo cool!

  12. dave

    In which constellation is located this “baby boom” galaxy?

  13. Careful Phil, you’re showing early symptoms of poetry.

    “Stars are popping out of this galaxy like clowns from a little car at the circus.” – great line!

    You haven’t been watching “Dumbo” lately have you? I think that’s where that particular imagery originates (now I’m doing it!)

  14. PAS

    Nice imagery, both physical and mental! But the Caltech article says the production rate is 10 times, not 400 times.

  15. Tomas

    PAS, actually the caltech article says that this galaxy produces up to 4000 stars a year as compared to 10 produced by the Milky Way … thus … Phil’s got his numbers right …

  16. Nicole

    Awesome! May be a way to start explaining those ginormous quasars being found out at z~6 and 7. If this sort of thing is common, it might manifest today as a massive elliptical… unless something happened to disrupt the star formation early on.

    “Stars are popping out of this galaxy like clowns from a little car at the circus.”

    Heeheehee. That’s amazing.

  17. I’ve got a question too, and I hope I don’t sound silly for forgetting something fundamental.

    If the galaxy we’re talking about is 12 billion light years away then we are actually seeing what it looked like 12 billion years ago, (relatively) shortly after the big bang. So far so good. Can we look back 12 billion years in any direction? If were all expanding away from each other than shouldn’t we only be able to see that many billions of years ago if we look towards site of the big bang? Which would be the center of the universe, or at least the original center.

    I hope I explained that question correctly, and unfortunately I don’t know when I’ll be back online this weekend, so I’ll say thank you now for the explications because you guys are always great at answering questions. So thanks and have a great weekend!

  18. Ian

    If the galaxy we’re talking about is 12 billion light years away then we are actually seeing what it looked like 12 billion years ago, (relatively) shortly after the big bang. So far so good. Can we look back 12 billion years in any direction? If were all expanding away from each other than shouldn’t we only be able to see that many billions of years ago if we look towards site of the big bang? Which would be the center of the universe, or at least the original center.

    It doesn’t matter which direction we look, because actually the universe has no center. Everything in the universe is expanding away from everything else, not away from a particular point. It’s a hard concept to grok, but for more information I would recommend this page.

  19. rb

    Is a “PeterMax” some sorta astronomical term? ;)

  20. m1omg

    “Well, Hugo, that’s one of the cool things about the Big Bang. The universe is still expanding, so in one sense we are “inside” the Big Bang. There is no “outside” of the Big Bang, when astronomers listen to the edge of the Universe there is nothing beyond – no space, no time, no anything. All of the “light” we see at the edge of the universe is the limit of space, which, along with time was created in the Big Bang.

    There was no “before” the Big Bang in our Universe.”

    Wrong.The space was exanding trillions of trillions times the lightspeed a few planck times after BB (cosmic inflation), so there is a extreme huge lot of space beyong, and if its flat or hyperbolically curved, it is actually infinite from inside and if its closed (not very probable as dark energy prevents this) it is at least 10 to the 37th power of light years in size, so we see actually just 1/10 to the 26th power of the universe at least and very probably its infinite.

  21. m1omg

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orders_of_magnitude_(length)

    Yeah its Wikipedia, but still, our universe is not just 15 billion light years wide.
    And we actually can recieve light from over 60 billion light years apart as these locations were closer earlier in the history.

  22. MORBAS

    Shades of 3C321 !
    Look closely, do you also see a particle beam eminating from a dog bone structure into the targeted star formation globular.

  23. Bas

    I have seen this article now from a number of other sources. Almost all of them have been making the claim of “Rare ‘Star-Making Machine’ Found in Distant Universe”, or something to that effect. Now, is this just really sloppy journalism, or did I miss out on announcements of neighbouring universes being found?

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