Star factory at the edge of the Universe

By Phil Plait | December 22, 2011 6:59 am

There are quite a few mysteries in astronomy; things we don’t understand. The vast majority of them are smallish in scope, things that can probably be solved with a little more work, more observations. These are more like questions than outright mysteries; things we just don’t have the answers to quite yet.

But then there are some that really are mysteries: unexpected oddities that, for now, defy explanation. One of these reared its head again recently, when observations by the ground-based Subaru and Keck observatories were combined with those from the space-based telescopes Hubble and Spitzer. It doesn’t look like much of a mystery — just a red smudge — but it pushes the boundaries of what we think the very Universe itself can do.

[Click to enbigbangenate.]

First, holy cow, what an image! Incredibly, nearly every single object in that picture is an entire galaxy, a vast collection of billions of stars. They’re also very distant; I doubt any of the bigger ones are closer than several billion light years away.

And lurking off to the side, where you’d hardly notice it, is that little red guy. Named GN-108036, it’s at the soul-crushing distance of 12.9 billion light years away. That means that the light we see here left that galaxy when the Universe was only a few hundred million years old.

As you might imagine, it may look faint, but at that distance it’s remarkable we can see it at all. But we do, because it’s amazingly luminous, perhaps the most intrinsically bright galaxy seen at that distance ever found. Of course, we don’t see too many galaxies farther away than this! And that’s part of the mystery.

As the Big Bang model of the cosmos goes, the Universe began 13.73 (+/- .12) billion years ago. It was very hot, and started cooling as it expanded. It took quite a bit of time before local pockets of gravity could overcome this ferocious heat, and the first stars and galaxies could form, something like 400 million years after the Bang itself.

So when we look at these very distant galaxies, we’re seeing them as they were not long after they formed. At some point, if you look back far enough, you just don’t see many galaxies. Either they haven’t formed yet, or they are too faint to be seen at that great distance.

But GN-108036 is there. Apparently, the reason it’s so bright is that it is cranking out stars; it looks like that red smear (at the time this light left it) is making as much as 100 solar masses worth of stars every year! That’s a lot. Our Milky Way is 100 times the mass of GN-108036, but this small, distant, young blob is churning out stars at a rate dozens of times faster than we are.

Why? That’s not clear. Conditions in the early Universe were different than they are now, with lots more gas available to make stars. But only a handful of galaxies (literally, fewer than a dozen) are known at this tremendous distance, so a lot of the details of how they behave are unknown. GN-108036 is far and away brighter than the others known, so that makes it even more mysterious. But it’s adding stars to its stockpile very rapidly, and may be the precursor of the giant galaxies — like our own — that we see today.

Even with the amazing arsenal of telescopes we have today, with state of the art detectors, this galaxy is on the thin hairy edge of what we can detect. The Universe is rich and thick with mysteries, and the beauty of it is, the harder we push the boundaries, the more weirdness we find. But — and this is a big but — the Universe obeys its own rules. Those rules are the rules of science, which is no coincidence; science was developed as a way of understanding nature. We may have a hard time understanding what we’re seeing at first, but the most amazing thing about the Universe may be that it’s knowable. What are mysteries today will be understood tomorrow, and new mysteries will be waiting for us then.

Related posts:

Record-breaking galaxy found at the edge of the Universe
Star found, older than Abe Vigoda
The Universe is 13.73 +/- .12 billion years old!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Top Post
MORE ABOUT: galaxy, Hubble, Keck, Spitzer, Subaru

Comments (29)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Could its extraordinary luminosity be explained by GN-108036 being filled with the super-massive, super-luminous beyiond superlatives “Population III” or first ever generation of stars to be born?

    (Cosmic nostalagia is justified – the greatest stars of all really were those that strutted the cosmic stage well before our time.)

    Think blue ultra-uber-hypergiant stars 300 times the solar mass with luminosities of five million times solar like Eta Carinae for the faint ones and unfathomably more for the brighter and most extreme – and short lived examples. The most superlative stars ever formed – and perhaps even many simultaneous or nearly so super & hypernovae of the rare pair-annhiliation kind of hypernovae. 8)

    And lurking off to the side, where you’d hardly notice it, is that little red guy.

    Which shows how deceptive appearences and language can be – its not really little at all but an entire galaxy of hundreds of thousands of stars. It only *looks* little because its so big that we can see it that far away like a mammoth perched on a mountain top but appearing as a pinpoint speck from the plain.

    These stars aren’t likely to be red but incomprehensibly bright and mostly blue-white, maybe sapphire or azure blue – although their light may be reddened by distance and colossal clouds of dust.

    As for guy? Well I’m not quite sure how you go about sexing galaxies but whose to say it ain’t a girl galaxy? 😉

    Magnificent image and great write up. Thanks. :-)

  2. I’m not quite sure how you go about sexing galaxies but whose to say it ain’t a girl galaxy?

    FWIW, the name GN-108036 strikes me as kinda feminine! 😉

    It sounds like an Asimov ‘Robot’ story prefix that would result in the thus designated robot getting nicknamed “Ginny” or “Gillian” or suchlike by its human operators. Maybe?

    See :

    For hypernovae & see :

    For Population III stars – keep scrolling down there. Plus :

    for more. Oh & the wiki-page for them, such as it is, is linked to my name.

  3. Chris

    I see a bunch of faint little red splotches in the Hubble image around the galaxy of interest. Are those real small distant galaxies or just noise?

  4. Chief

    A thought occurs is that we seem to be seeing galaxies very soon after the big bang. I wonder if the process of the formation of galaxies started before the universe became dark and light started its journey across the universe. We know the hyperinflation gave us a large universe soon after the big bang that slowed to the formation of massed particles. Has the formation of particles been time sequenced, ie the hypothetical graviton coming into existence to draw in the matter before the creation of photons.

  5. Tara Li

    Of course, perspective is a funny thing – to me, it looks like that little green blob butting up against it is behind it. Ahh, the fun of astronomy – figuring out what’s where in 3D on flat plates!

  6. Mark

    I wonder if anyone has done the math to determine what our galaxy would behave like if there were no heavy elements; ie, naught but hydrogen. Just that. A 100% pure hydrogen galaxy. I’d wager there would be an awful lot of very large stars forming.

  7. Wzrd1

    @#3, Chief, my understanding is, once matter (massed particles) formed, gravity was part of the equation.
    That would have been slightly before things became dark, but when the universe was still so hot, heat would have overcome gravity. This galaxy would most likely have begun accumulating matter, but not forming stars, during the bright period and forming stars as soon as expansion permitted cooling enough to form the large monster stars. That may well also explain why such giants were common then and so uncommon now.

    #Phil, any data on what that looks like in IR and radio (though I doubt we’d get good measurements from radio at that distance)?

  8. Hugo Schmidt

    Someone mind explaining the following to me, because I never can get my head around it:

    the Universe was much closer together a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang than it is today. Why, therefore, did light from the edges of the Universe take so much time to get to us? There shouldn’t have been that much space to traverse.

  9. Scott P.

    “So when we look at these very distant galaxies, we’re seeing them as they were not long after they formed. At some point, if you look back far enough, you just don’t see many galaxies. Either they haven’t formed yet, or they are too faint to be seen at that great distance.”

    Given that the universe is (we think) finite in size, could it just be that the percentage of the universe that is that far away from us is very small? To take an example, if I had a way to detect humans far away (following the curvature of the Earth), I’d find there were many fewer that were 25,000 miles away than 20,000 miles away, but that would not be due to any limitations in my detector, nor to the fact that the humans 20,000 miles away evolved earlier than those 25,000 miles away.

  10. Ganzy

    Would it be correct for me to think that the early universe, after the formation of the hydrogen and helium ~75%/20% but before the formation of the first stars, would have resembled a very dark and dense, rapidly expanding gas cloud?

    When trying to imagine this I keep visualizing something like various regions of a thick dusty nebula collapsing towards a common centre of mass to form the cores of new stars. What about the early universe, hydrogen helium cloud scenario I mention above: There wouldn’t be any hydrocarbons/soot in this early gas cloud. Is that because all nebulae/PHA molecular clouds remnants of first generation stars?

    I saw a video about 10 years ago whereby a couple of scientists were experimenting in trying to clear a heavily smoked filled room as quickly as possible, by using various frequencies of soundwaves emanating from large speaker cones. The idea was to cause the smoke particles to coalesce together into large clumps which then either fell to the floor, or floated around the sealed room on moving air currents. The walls of this experimental room were clear glass or perspex. These little clumps that floated around the experimental chamber so reminded me of the Bok globules we see ‘floating’ around in nebulae.

    The experiment was a success and I think its development would have been used to clear heavily smoke filled rooms for firefighters to enter. Did anyone els see this video or know if the technique ever became used in real life fire rescue scenarios?

  11. Ken

    So, is it actually red, or is this a false-color image? And if it’s true color, what does that red correspond to, once you un-redshift it?

  12. Robin

    @ Hugo Schmidt (#7): There are a few reasons. First, Earth wasn’t around a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. After all, the Earth is only about 4 billion years old. Second, we don’t know at what distance GN-108036 was from Earth when it formed. That is to say, we don’t know how far it’s sped away from Earth in that time. The Big Bang came from a singularity, but a singularity doesn’t have to be a point. Third, once light from that galaxy reached Earth, it continued of course to be incident on Earth. Unfortunately he haven’t always had the technology to resolve that galaxy (i.e. see it). As telescopes improve, resolution improves and we detect things further and further away. Fourth, we haven’t always had the technology to quickly search all the data that sky surveys are providing to identify every resolvable feature. As telescope technology, sensor technology, and computer technology improves, our ability to identify discrete features increases, but alas, the number of discrete features to identify also increases…..maybe faster than we can identify things, at least for the time being.

  13. Paul

    Think blue ultra-uber-hypergiant stars 300 times the solar mass with luminosities of five million times solar like Eta Carinae for the faint ones and unfathomably more for the brighter and most extreme – and short lived examples

    Brighter ones couldn’t be THAT much brighter. The Eddington limit sets a bound on how bright a star can be.

  14. Chris

    @5 Mark
    I think one thing you fail to appreciate is just how little heavy elements there are. The Universe is ~75% hydrogen and ~25% helium. That’s always the case, the abundance ratio was set in the first few minutes of big bang nucleosynthesis. So we can never have a 100% hydrogen galaxy unless you plan on performing some grand fractionation experiment. As for all the other elements in the periodic table, they are less than 1% of the visible matter in the universe. Basically an impurity. So for stellar formation it is still dominated by the hydrogen and helium density.

  15. riverlaw

    Hi Hugo, Robin is probably on target more than what I am going to add. For me understanding how fast expansion took place explains why light is just now getting to us. The expansion was much faster than the speed of light.

  16. Chris

    @10 Ken
    From the press release
    The main Hubble image shows a field of galaxies, known as the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey, or GOODS. A close-up of the Hubble image, and a Spitzer image, are called out at right. In the Spitzer image, infrared light captured by its Infrared Array Camera at wavelengths of 3.6 and 4.5 microns is colored green and red, respectively. In the Hubble image, visible light taken by its Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument at 0.6 and 0.9 microns is blue and green, respectively, while infrared light captured by Hubble’s new Wide Field Camera 3 at 1.6 microns is red. GN-108036 is only detected in the infrared, and is completely invisible in the optical Hubble images, explaining its very red color in this picture.
    Basically they use a series of filters to take multiple photos. When the image disappears they know they went too far and the are able to estimate the red shift. They are looking at the lyman-alpha line. The transition between the n=2 and n=1 levels of hydrogen. This is in the UV in the rest frame. wavelength of 0.1219 microns. Giving you some perspective just how much these have been redshifted.

  17. Wesley Struebing

    Cool nonetheless, but my mind keeps “translating” your use of the present tense to past tense. (I doubt seriously that it is still churning out stars at a massive rate! 😉

    Great pic, Phil; thanks for sharing!

  18. Wesley Struebing:

    Cool nonetheless, but my mind keeps “translating” your use of the present tense to past tense. (I doubt seriously that it is still churning out stars at a massive rate! 😉

    Well, it “is” churning them out in the sense that the light we’re seeing came from the time when it was happening. Yes, it’s probably scientifically inaccurate to say that that galaxy (or whatever it is/was) “is” doing anything, but from the standpoint of “we’re seeing it happen”, present tense makes sense.

  19. X

    “a handful of galaxies (literally, fewer than a dozen)”. I always suspected the BA was an alien. Take note: here on Earth, our hands have 5 fingers.

  20. Gregg1956

    I’m trying to find the coordinates for GN-108036. I’ve searched and searched to no avail. I tried Simbad and NED. I slogged through a couple of abstracts. Can anyone help?

  21. Dragonchild

    1. Messier Tidy Upper Says
    “These stars aren’t likely to be red but incomprehensibly bright and mostly blue-white, maybe sapphire or azure blue – although their light may be reddened by distance and colossal clouds of dust. ”

    Definitely distance (more like redshift), but dust? There wasn’t much dust at all in the Pop III era; almost none actually. It’s one of the defining characterics of that time (ugh I feel like I just described1980s music or something). There might be some intervening dust between here and there (or should I say now and then), but then wouldn’t that have obscured it from Hubble completely?

  22. HvP

    Ken B said, “but from the standpoint of “we’re seeing it happen”, present tense makes sense.”

    I take no part in the semantic notion that it’s only correct to phrase things as “in the past” or solely “as it happens to be seen.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely appropriate to phrase these occurrences either way as long as the perspective from which it’s drawn is understood.

    Consider this: Relativity states that information can only be conveyed at the speed of light – implying that causality occurs at the speed of light – implying that things don’t happen until you see them happen. This is a popular sentiment with many of us who are cosmically inclined.

    However, we are able to observe the cosmic microwave background radiation emanating from matter during a period nearly contemporaneous with the initial expansion of the early stages of the universe. By the logic of “it happens as we see it happening” then we must state that the hyperinflation of the early universe is currently happening right now in a sphere with a 13 billion light year radius – when the universe was infinitesimally small!

    This is a logical absurdity.

    Conclusion: It’s perfectly appropriate to say that “it happened long ago” or “we observe it happening now” as long as everyone understands the frame of reference.

  23. Anchor

    #22 HvP says, “This is a logical absurdity.”

    No it isn’t. Not if one speaks in terms of hyperbolic geometry.

    You can see wonderful examples in the work of M.C. Escher:

    BTW: Emission at the time when decoupling occurred (the radiation we now see as the Cosmic Microwave Background) the universe was hardly “infinitesimally small”. But that’s a moot nit-pick and in no way alters the principle if one considers, say, gravitational waves from much nearer time zero.

    So, it is entirely logical to apprehend the “now” upon absorbing a photon as simultaneous to the “now” at which the photon “was” emitted. As you appear to note yourself, for the photon, no time elapses between emission and absorption. From the photon’s frame of reference, the photon hasn’t traveled through any distance in space at all. It is not absurd to use the appropriate reference frame. Euclidean geometry isn’t the only logically consistent geometry.

    There is a certain poetry and emancipation in the realization that our reference frame is not the last word, and that sunlight striking your eye is as fresh as the instant it lept off the surface of the Sun – even though from our point of view it requires that light 8 minutes and 20-odd seconds to make the journey. It may be disconcerting to think of your retina or skin being almost literally in contact with the Sun’s photosphere, but there’s nothing absurd about it considered from the photon’s point of view. For the same reason, it’s not at all a logical absurdity to think of the Big Bang as going on right “NOW”. Its not JUST a moment that happened a long time ago. The question of ‘when’ and how things look to observers depends on the reference frame one chooses. From the viewpoint of the photons (which were ultraviolet wavelengths “then” and since red-shifted to the microwave we detect from the background) it’s still happening. There simply is no such thing as an absolute “now”.

  24. @13. Paul : December 22nd, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Brighter ones [population III stars] couldn’t be THAT much brighter. [than Eta Carinae – ed.] The Eddington limit sets a bound on how bright a star can be.[Brackets added.]

    Apparently as I understand it, things were a little different in the earliest epoch of comological history. (Or pre – very very much pre-history really when you think about it!) Due from what I’ve read to the extremely low metallicity.

    Even today we’ve recently found a few stars that are pushing the upper mass edges of the Eddington Limit such as the Pistol Star and R136a1 the most massive star yet found in our Galaxy. (Click on my name for the latters wiki-page.)

    @21. Dragonchild : Good point there about the lack of dust – Fair enough. :-)

    Although maybe there’d have been a lot more gas clouds which could have ended up being somewhat opaque possibly?

  25. Jess Tauber

    It may very well be the case that the properties of matter and energy were slightly different back then, linked to the curvature of spacetime and the degree to which the Universe had already expanded. If so, one implication is that time travel into the past is impossible, unless you can actively control those properties.

    One area where this might be relevant is in the packing of nucleons in the nuclei of atoms. Right now N/P converges on the Golden Ratio as Z (atomic number) increases. One specialist, Prof. Jan Boeyens in South Africa, believes that nucleons pack according to a 3D (perhaps 4D) analogue to the double Golden Spirals seen, for instance, in the seed heads of sunflowers- protons and neutrons are of different sizes, but also exchange identities as well as have the ability to travel, when paired, right through each other. So dynamically one might have the kind of size/position cline within the nucleus that fits the Golden Spiral bill.

    Many properties of the nucleus would be affected by packing parameters- if these change due to spacetime curvature, even slightly, perhaps it would explain, partly, the kinds of biases we see in the earliest galaxies with regard to star formation and stellar properties.

  26. GLJ

    Interesting post, Phil.

    To nitpick, rather than say that the galaxy in question is 12.9 billion light years away, it might be better to say that the light took 12.9 billion years to reach us, or simply give the galaxy’s redshift of 7.2.

  27. HvP

    Sorry for my delay, but I forgot about this thread in the ensuing Christmas time hub-bub.

    I’m not disputing the math, and I’m certainly not adverse to using different frames of reference where appropriate. I’m addressing the semantic issue of what language is used to communicate these things in the public sphere.

    And yes, shortly after posting my last response I realized my mistake concerning the size of the universe when what we observe as the CMB radiation was emitted. As you note, it wasn’t crucial to the point since I only wanted to show that we describe the universe as having been much smaller at that time. And we DO describe the universe as being much smaller at the time the CMB was emitted.

    From my perspective there is no logical advantage to describing these events “from the perspective of the photon.” I’m not a photon, nor is anyone participating in the observations or discussions. Further, if the subject of discussion is “what happened” and “when did it happen” then we need a reference point in which causality is preserved. If a photon experiences all events simultaneously then this doesn’t help us much in determining a sequence of events for the purpose of our understanding of cosmic history.

    In fact, I’m finding it difficult to even contemplate the utility of a cosmology with no references to a past. Perhaps, if I were a non-corporeal alien residing in a wormhole somewhere with no concept of linear time that might be useful. As it is, I am a human with all of the evolutionary baggage that might entail.

  28. George Walters

    I would like to post a comment with tongue -in-cheek Could that possible be the cork that GOD put into the bubble of the universe so he could deflate it someday when it becamet too large to manage?

  29. Dusty_Matter

    It’s very doubtful that this little guy is red from dust, as in the very early universe there wouldn’t be any dust. If there were mostly only hydrogen and helium, from where would the dust have originated? There would be no supply of dust materials until after these first generation stars had used up all of their fuels, and expounded their byproducts back into the galactic environment. At the time of our viewing of this galaxy, that most likely hasn’t happened yet, so the redness would be due to the expansion rate of the universe alone, stretching the light from this very early galaxy.

    If you would be considering intervening dust between us and it, then this redness would affect the whole view, making all of the galaxies in the photo red. This isn’t so, so it is a pristine view.


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