Across the Universe, the stars cry out

By Phil Plait | December 17, 2010 7:00 am

A few years back, astronomers discovered that some distant galaxies were blasting out vast amounts of infrared light, but were very faint in visible light, the kind we see. They termed these objects ULIRGs ("you-lurgs"), for Ultra Luminous Infrared Galaxies. The idea is that these galaxies are forming lots of stars, but there was so much dust choking the region that all the visible light was blocked. However, infrared light can pierce through the dust, so telescopes that detect IR can see them. Due to the physics of the situation, astronomers also figured there must be two populations of these galaxies; the ones they had found, and another that was (very) slightly warmer.

Well, they finally found some from that second group:


I know, they don’t look like much, do they? But you have to realize what you’re seeing here: those circled blobs of light are entire galaxies, with billions of stars, and they’re a staggering 11 billion light years away.

That’s really, really far. The Universe is only 13.7 billion years old, so we’re seeing these galaxies as they were just a few billion years after the entire Universe came into being. Not only that, but the amount of infrared light these galaxies are emitting is truly terrifying: in the infrared alone, they are blasting out a solid trillion times the Sun’s entire energy output.

A trillion! 1,000,000,000,000! That’s a whole lot of energy. And it comes from a whole lot of newborn stars, because these galaxies are cranking out stars at a rate 700 times that of our own Milky Way galaxy! The view inside those galaxies must be breathtaking; imagine being surrounded by the Orion Nebula everywhere you look. Wow.

SWIRE_LockmansurveyWhat cracks me up about this too, is how they found them. The European Space Agency is using the orbiting Herschel Infrared Observatory to take a survey of galaxies in the IR. It’s finding a lot of them; in the picture above every dot you see is an infrared source, most likely a galaxy. And that’s a small section of the sky; on the right is an image of a bigger part of the survey. You need to click it and see it full-res to get a sense of how many freaking galaxies there are out there!

As far as astronomical discoveries go, this is another in a long series of steps needed to understand the Universe. I know that in your daily life this may not affect you much; you have other things on your mind, daily stresses and such. But you know what? While I go about my everyday business, in my mind I’m occupied by all the mundane and gross worries of life just like you are, just like everyone else is. But somewhere back there, in some part of my brain, there is knowledge that sits there… and every now and again, it makes itself known.

We can see galaxies a hundred billion trillion kilometers away! We know that stars are being born there, stars like the Sun, and they’re being born every day! If you were there, the sky would be a riot of red and green gas strewn in sheets and ribbons and shock waves and festooned with brilliant jewel-like stars everywhere you looked!

Those wonders are out there, and they’re real. That makes my life better, just knowing that.

Image credit: ESA/SPIRE/HerMES

Related posts:

Herschel opens its eye
Herschel eyes the infrared Southern Cross
Chaos! Turbulence! Blowouts! Herschel!
Record-breaking galaxy found at the edge of the Universe

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (54)

  1. PayasYouStargaze

    Do these observations tell us much about our own galaxy 11 billion years ago? Obviously those galaxies aren’t like that now. It would be interesting to know what these things look like now.

  2. Bigby

    “If you were there, the sky would be a riot of red and green gas strewn in sheets and ribbons and shock waves and festooned with brilliant jewel-like stars everywhere you looked!”

    Don’t you mean…”If you were there 11 BILLION YEARS AGO…”? The conditions we’re seeing, or deducing, were in effect an awfully long time ago. Or are you able to extrapolate what current conditions are like based on these observations?

  3. Wait? Science actually PREDICTED something, and they found it? Wow, isn’t that amazing? 😛

  4. Kevin B.

    Those pictures push the limits of my imagination. Thanks!

  5. Ira

    It’s important for readers to remember, as PayasYouStargaze mentioned, these are extremely distant galaxies that _were_ super active, 11 billion years ago. It’s easy to use the terms ‘is’ ‘and’ are, but the state of those galaxies now is a mystery we will likely never know.

    Pretty darn cool though!

  6. Gary Ansorge

    ” they are blasting out a solid trillion times the Sun’s entire energy output.”

    So, they are galaxies about 2.5 to 3 times as large as our Milky Way? That implies our own galaxy has had a LOT of stars go silent over the last 11 billion years. Many blew up, some burned thru their fuel and are now cinders. For denizens of those galaxies, looking our way they would likely see pretty much the same sight and wonder about us. How cool is that?

    As an aside, about blowing up asteroids, a new model that analyzed the effects of a 500 kilo ton nuc on a typical rubble pile suggests it would result in the rock being blown into pieces too small to penetrate our atmosphere and those pieces would not re-aggregate.

    Maybe the movie Armageddon wasn’t as far off as we thought? Bruce Willis, you still have a job,,,

    Gary 7

  7. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, but it has and continues to undergo expansion.

    The edge of the observable universe is 46 billion light years.

    Just because these galaxies are 11 billion light years away doesn’t mean we’re seeing them just a few billion years after the Big Bang.

  8. Tom K

    “The view inside those galaxies must be breathtaking; imagine being surrounded by the Orion Nebula everywhere you look….

    …If you were there, the sky would be a riot of red and green gas strewn in sheets and ribbons and shock waves and festooned with brilliant jewel-like stars everywhere you looked!”

    That’s not actually true, is it? (I mean other than the comment above about it being 11 billion years ago.) If you were in the middle of the Orion Nebula it still wouldn’t look like the photographs we see, because even a dense gas cloud is still pretty much vacuum isn’t it? Being close to one of these regions would just mean that the same dim nebulosity would be larger, spreading out the light reflected from it. The surface brightness would still be low and it wouldn’t be appreciably brighter to the naked eye, would it?

  9. Daniel

    Looking at a picture like that is an incredible experience. The universe is soooooooooooooooooo big and there MUST be others out there that are looking in our direction. I… freaking… love…. the …. work… of…. astronomers. I wish I was one.

  10. SteveO

    So there really are stars everywhere we look, we just can’t see ’em cause they’re in the infrared…

  11. Floyd

    Well, Carl Sagan had it more or less right: “Billions and Billions” of galaxies, with a lot of vacuum in between. That’s a lot of galaxies…

  12. Chris

    If they are 11 billion years old, it seems like the visible light would have been redshifted into the infrared. If they emitted in the infrared way back then would the telescope still be able to see them? I probably should do the calc, but I have other work to do.

  13. Bear

    What’s glowing red and green? Seriously, these are first-generation stars. Hydrogen and helium and maybe a very faint trace of heavier elements from the very first supernovae. Are those two elements the ones responsible for both colors?

  14. Chris

    What I love about Astronomy is that it effectively works like a time machine. We’re seeing what happened 11 billion years ago. With most science we have to look at the effects or remains of something (fossils, soil samples, etc) and try to piece together what happened. With Astronomy, we actually see it happening.

  15. Ah. Simultaneity trolling. That’s new.

    Edit: Oh, by the way, good post Phil, but I could have used an explanation of why there should be a “warmer” group, and what exactly is meant by “warmer”.

  16. Colin

    That was a very beautifully written post. My mind is effectively blown and I feel extremely tiny. Haven’t felt this small since Sagan did his little blue dot speech.

  17. John

    Phil I’ve got a question for you. The galaxies you describe as being 11 billion years old; aren’t they actually 11 billion years away from us? The red shift is measured as perceived from its vantage point. My question is where is the center of the universe that the universe is expanding from? Can we extrapolate the centroid from the vectors of these objects.

  18. Geomaniac

    We’d have to wait 11 billion years to see how these galaxies look today. I doubt many of us will be around by then.

  19. Anne

    How awesome and how humbling! To think that I, as tiny as I am, get to witness such a thing is glorious. I am grateful.

  20. “We can see galaxies a hundred billion trillion kilometers away! We know that stars are being born there, stars like the Sun, and they’re being born every day! If you were there, the sky would be a riot of red and green gas strewn in sheets and ribbons and shock waves and festooned with brilliant jewel-like stars everywhere you look.”

    The use of present tense in descriptions distorts our understanding of the Universe; at least for laymen, such as myself. Those stars and galaxies existed many years ago. Who knows what they are doing “now,” if they even exist. The further away we look, the faster the Universe appears to expand. How do I know that the rate of expansion is not directly related to the age of the object(s) we are observing? OTOH: How could it not? I am confused and could use some clarification on this.

  21. Matthew

    I do sometimes think of the immensity of the inverse and my human brain breaks. It is humbling and inspiring! “we are star stuff”.

  22. Another Eric S

    Edit: removed since John @17 asked pretty much the same thing.

  23. Ron1

    @20 Paul Says: Who knows what they are doing ‘now,” if they even exist.

    What is ‘now’?

    Consider, when you look into your significant other’s eyes, you see them (as you see those distant galaxies) as they were. Never do you ever see them as they are.

  24. Ron1

    @17 John and @22 Another Eric

    There is no centre. As Stephen Hawking says (In a Brief History of Time, Fig 3.6) “The expanding universe is like a balloon being inflated. Points on the surface of the balloon move apart, but none of them is the center of expansion.”

    Oh yeah, and don’t think the centre is the centre of the balloon – it’s not like that. Expansion is happening everywhere

  25. BJN

    Edit: replace instances of “are” with “were”. We’re looking at incredibly ancient history. I’m confident that whatever these galaxies are doing now, they’re not like they were 11 billion years ago. It’s harder to grasp that we’re dealing with four dimensions, but I don’t think accuracy hurts the story.

  26. Another Eric S

    @24 Ron1 :
    But even on the skin of a balloon you’d be able to point in the direction of the balloon’s center.

  27. John EB Good

    Remember everyone to think in 4 dimensions: If you’d really be there, you’d also be 11 billion years ago! (you ought to read Brian Greene’s “The Fabric of Cosmos” to understand that one, along with how to slice bread in a “spacetimely” manner!)

    @17 John: No you can’t go vectorial, no more than you could tell, if you were a 2 dimensional being living on the surface of an inflating balloon, from which point drawn on its surface all others move away from. They all move out from each other, at the same rate according to distance, no matter which one you take as a prime reference. Same goes with any points in space.

    The apparent center of our universe when using your operation would be Earth, (which some creationist would certainly twist into telling they were right in the end) but it would be the same for your own planet if you lived in far far away galaxy (can’t resist adding, a long long time ago!) that would end up being the perceived center of the universe using this method.

    If you were able the perceive the 4 axis of spacetime, (which we probably could if we were a specy able to move at relativistic speeds and this was an evolutive advantage favoring our survival!) you would still end up with a when along the where. The where to us, poor 3 dimensional beings, is everywhere. The “depth axis” of our universal balloon is Time.

  28. uudale

    @27 JohnEBGood:

    Excellently put for the layperson! Best short explanation of this I’ve read yet!

  29. Ron1

    @26 Another Eric

    No you can’t.

    If you remove the inflation point of the balloon ( the universe does NOT have such a point) then you are left with an inflating sphere (which the universe is not) where all points are moving away from each other – there is no centre – space everywhere (except within massive (gravity) structures ( ie. galaxies) is inflating at the same time.

    Also keep in mind that the universe is flat (proven so) and (at the quantum level) things can appear from nothing. Truly, the universe is an awesome place.

  30. John EB Good

    @28 uudale: Thank you. But being myself a layman, I can’t do it in any other fashion! 😉

    I personally thank all the brilliant physicists that are able to get to the point in their books without using a single equation. It’s the only way, as Richard Feynman would have put it, they’ll convince me they know their stuff in and out and in reverse.

  31. Stan9fos

    … Best Song Ever … I’m just sayin’.

  32. Ron1

    For a good video overview of a lot of these concepts, see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009 on YouTube.

    Dr Krauss is Professor of Physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at the Arizona State University

  33. J.B

    “…imagine being surrounded by the Orion Nebula everywhere you look. Wow.”

    Another thing that fascinates me is: if intelligent lifeforms were to develop in those galaxies, how exactly would they form their view of the universe? Would the assumption of mediocrity prevail, such that they’d think the whole Universe was one great, big cloud of luminous dust? How long would it take them to figure out a balanced view of the Universe? And of course this line of thought leads to: is our own view of the Universe similarly hampered in some way, and is there something else beyond what we can see? Silly and ultimately pointless lines of thought, I know, but its just one of those things you think when you’re lying in bed and getting all philosophical and stuff.

  34. Matt B.

    When we receive light from something 11 billion light-years away, that light must be less than 11 billion years old, because some of the intervening distance that we perceive now didn’t yet exist (due to the expansion of the universe) when the light would have passed through it. Hence the fact that the edge of the visible universe is 42 billion light-years away (according to #7) even though the the Big Bang was only 13.7 billion years ago. It’s mind-blowing.

  35. Leon

    I just had an interesting thought. If there were a star in one of those galaxies that evolved sentient life and a technological civilization (I know, probably unlikely, given there would have been very little more than hydrogen and helium back that early in the universe), and they had those kinds of vistas to look at, they’d be long gone by now. Also, their astronomers might have marveled that, with everything moving apart, beings in the distant future–like us for instance–would live in a much less interesting universe (they would say, since the future wouldn’t afford such spectacular views and everything would be so much further apart).

  36. Ron1

    @33 J.B. and @35 Leon … Nothing beyond our galaxy will appear to exist.

    All the billions of galaxies outside our own galaxy will disappear – they will still exist, but will not be visible to us. To intelligent lifeforms of our galaxy, we will appear alone in the void – the universe will be our galaxy – the prevailing human ‘view’ from a few hundred years ago.

  37. Gary 7 @ 6 (which is different from 7 of 9…)
    Anwho, the rubble-pile asteroid that was blasted by a nuke in their simulation, was 500 m across, similar to Itokawa, which looks positively dinky in Emily Lakdawalla’s “asteroid comparison chart” (search those terms on this blog to find the picture). Against most of those chunks (rubble piles) our nukes would still have little effect. On the upside, of the closest encounters since 1932 (from IAUs Minor Planet Center) only 2% were by rocks larger than 500m in diameter, and those were all pretty wide encounters – more than 62 Earth radii from the surface of our home = outside the Moon’s orbit (Caveat: a 500m long doggy-bone, i.e., Itokawa, has a lot less mass than a 500m diameter round rock). This nuke simulation is not particularely surprising news, but it is somewhat reassuring. The small rocks are presumably the ones we will have the least warning of.
    Cheers, Regner

  38. CB

    @ Bear

    What’s glowing red and green?

    Nothing? This image was taken by an infrared telescope, so it’s necessarily a false-color image. I couldn’t find any obvious information about what wavelengths were given what colors in the image on the linked website, so I can’t tell you more.

  39. Buzz Parsec

    Bigby @2,

    In astronomy, we’re *ALWAYS* looking “then” as well as “there”, even when we are looking at the moon (1.3 seconds ago) or the Sun (8 minutes ago), or Alpha Centauri (September or October, 2006) or at these galaxies 11 billion years ago. When astronomers say “there”, they mean “at that point in space and time.” So, yes, Phil means “if you were there 11 billion years ago”, but it’s implied and redundant to say that every time.

    (This should be a Bad Astronomy FAQ, if it isn’t already.)

    If you were here (i.e. in the Milky Way Galaxy) 11 billion years ago, it would probably look pretty similar.

  40. Chip

    @Tom K –
    It is a fairly common misnomer that the surface brightness of a distant galaxy would be exactly the same from all locations if you were much closer to it. In other words small faint gray fuzzy objects in a telescope would become large faint gray fuzzy objects to the human eye if seen up close. It is generally true if all conditions were exactly the same at all times but they are not. These objects, though at staggering distances, are so gigantic and richly detailed compared to the tiny Earthly scale that there would actually be specific coordinates and locations wherein a hypothetical observer would see considerably more detail including those colors the human eye could perceive from glowing gasses. Areas that were faint would remain faint though more detailed but other areas that were faint would brighten up due to the close proximity of stars and gas clouds not seen from Earth.

    The reverse could also occur with nebulae within our galaxy. A beautiful faint nebula illuminated by nearby stars would be discernible to the human eye when viewed from a hypothetical approaching starship but as the starship enters the enormous nebula it would all but disappear except for pockets of denser gas further away within it, due to the relative size differences of the ship and the nebula. Some nebulae are quite brightly illuminated by stars within and would display clearly seen details and areas of brightness whereas others would likely remain faint near or far.

  41. Brian Too

    Is there any indication that the Milky Way might have had an highly active star forming period in it’s past? Similar to these galaxies? In other words, could the Milky Way have been a ULIRG long ago?

  42. Jess Tauber

    Phil is part Wormhole Alien/Bajoran Prophet on his mother’s side- he sometimes has a bit of a problem with temporal matters.

  43. Joseph G

    It’s ok, stars. Everything’s gonna be fine. Shhhh. You’ve got millions of good years ahead of you yet. Hush, I won’t tell anyone. There there.

  44. Pareidolius

    Actually, it’s those images of infinite vastness that uplift me and give me perspective and the will to keep fighting the good fight. That we are self-aware star-stuff means that each and every one of us has won a lottery with odds so unimaginable that it makes picking seven numbers seem like a piece of cake. We are some kinda lucky monkeys, regardless of our circumstances.

  45. Ross

    When we talk about things like this, are we to talk about them in the past or present tense? What I mean is presumably these events are long over what with the 11 billion year travel time of the light but to us we are still seeing it and will continue to for a looooooooooooooooong time no doubt so which is the correct tense?

  46. Oli

    @45. Ross: they are in the past, but for us they are sort of present as well. When astronomers say “there” they mean at that point in space and time, so an astronomer’s “there” = a layman’s “there” and “then” combined.

  47. Gary Ansorge

    37. Regner Trampedach

    Of course, that simulation was only for aggregate asteroids. It would be totally useless for an iron rock.

    On the other hand, such a solid core (iron) asteroid would be ideal to hollow out and use as a space colony.

    Gary 7

  48. Phil,

    I think possibly even a bigger wonder may start to be realized after the next round of space telescopes. At which time I fully expect that in reality there will be no observable limit to the number of galaxies out there and the distances involved, in deference to the present BB model. Don’t think the universe is infinite but the only limits to the extent of observation will be those of technology.

    If this is found to be valid then the scope of future observations will only be limited by the imagination. This has been, and will continue to be my prediction.

  49. Joseph G

    @#48 forrest: As long as we’re making predictions, I predict that at some point, telescopes will resolve an enormously distant gray grid, overlaid with a flashing “Loading…” sign :)

  50. Father Tyme

    We have to remember that we are looking at galaxies that were in that part of the sky 11 billion years ago. Chances are they aren’t actually where they appear now, having moved a few feet! LOL!
    And even sadder, they may not even exist “right now, our time.”
    Life adn civilizations that may have flourished4, 5, 6 billion years ago may be of a distant past while new life is beginning, that we will never know.
    Feeling rather small and quite insignificant right now.

  51. Doug

    OK, maybe a stupid question, but if the big bang was 13.7 billion years ago and this galaxy existed 11 billion years ago, would the photons of light from that galaxy at that time have reached the milky way 2.7 billion years after the big bang? How many light years could a galaxy be from the milky way 2.7 billion years after the big bang? Unless the expansion was faster than the speed of light how could we only be these 11 billion year old photons now?

  52. Joseph G

    @51 Doug: That’s a tricky question, for two reasons – first, space itself is continually expanding, to an extent that it’s possible for two objects to be receding from each other at a relative speed of greater than the speed of light while still receiving light from each other (that is, old light). And second, it’s commonly thought that there was a period of rapid inflation shortly after the big bang (see “cosmic inflation“)
    Annnnd that’s about all I know. I know enough to know I can’t explain it, but other people can 😛

  53. Captn Tommy

    1. Since those Galaxies are at least 2 Sagons away, all those new stars are being created every yesterday.

    2. Are all those galaxies actually that crunched together? Or… are we looking through a Sagon or so of depth(like suspended motes in a murky sea)?

    Merry Christmas to All… Irregardless

    Captn Tommy

  54. TheHowler

    @51 Doug; the light we’re seeing now left that galaxy 11 billion years ago. Your right that its redshift, say z=2.5 (which gives 11billion years light travel time:
    puts it at some current ‘luminosity distance’ from the Milky Way 67.509 billion light years.
    There is (amazingly) no contradiction with far flung regions of the Universe being carried away from each other by expansion “faster” than the speed of light. This doesn’t violate any physics … it’s just the way it is.


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