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Astronomers discover ancient galaxy

Galaxy has two centers instead of one
February 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Astronomers took pictures of a far-off lumpy galaxy just forming 13 billion years ago, putting it among the earliest and most distant cosmic objects ever photographed. Though the black-and-white images are fuzzy, they are the most detailed and best confirmed look back in both time and distance that humans have seen, said Johns Hopkins University astronomy professor Holland Ford. He was part of a team of scientists taking the pictures with NASA's space telescopes, Hubble and Spitzer.

The galaxy, called A1689-zD1, is from when the universe was about 700 million years old, not long after the formation of the first galaxies.

And it's different from galaxies like our Milky Way, Ford said.

"It is much smaller. It is lumpy. It has two centers instead of one and it is undergoing extreme star formation," he said. "It is basically the building blocks for what will be a galaxy like our own in the future."

To see that far away, astronomers needed a little luck and help from the cosmos. A cluster of much closer galaxies act as a natural zoom lens for Earth's telescopes. Strong gravitational forces bend light around that cluster of galaxies, magnifying the light from directly behind it.

In this case, the infant galaxy appeared at least 10 times brighter than it would have without the natural help, Ford said. Other places behind the cluster appear hundreds of times sharper. This natural lens has to be lined up perfectly in order to see what's behind it, he said.

When Earth gets stronger telescopes in the future, including a new space telescope to be launched in 2013, this young galaxy would be a good place to look, astronomers said.

 

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