Dense concentrations of galaxies that are poised to merge, have been uncovered by two international teams of scientists led by Tim Miller from Dalhousie University in Canada and Yale University in the US and Iván Oteo from the University of Edinburgh, UK.
These galaxies are forming the cores of what will eventually become colossal galaxy clusters.
Peering 90% of the way across the observable Universe, the Miller team observed a galaxy protocluster named SPT2349-56. The light from this object began travelling to us when the Universe was about a tenth of its current age.
This artist’s impression of SPT2349-56 shows a group of interacting and merging galaxies in the early Universe. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
The Oteo team discovered a similar megamerger formed by ten dusty star-forming galaxies, nicknamed a “dusty red core” because of its very red colour, by combining observations from ALMA and the APEX.
“The lifetime of dusty starbursts is thought to be relatively short, because they consume their gas at an extraordinary rate. At any time, in any corner of the Universe, these galaxies are usually in the minority. So, finding numerous dusty starbursts shining at the same time like this is very puzzling, and something that we still need to understand,” Iván Oteo said in a press release.
Observed by ALMA and APEX, these forming galaxy clusters showed that they had unusual structure and confirmed that their light originated much earlier than expected — only 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang.
The new high-resolution ALMA observations finally revealed that the two faint glows are not single objects, but are actually composed of fourteen and ten individual massive galaxies respectively, each within a radius comparable to the distance between the Milky Way and the neighbouring Magellanic Clouds.
“These discoveries by ALMA are only the tip of the iceberg. Additional observations with the APEX telescope show that the real number of star-forming galaxies is likely even three times higher. Ongoing observations with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s VLT are also identifying additional galaxies,” comments Carlos De Breuck, ESO astronomer.
By using data from ALMA, with its superior resolution and sensitivity, as input to sophisticated computer simulations, the researchers are able to study cluster formation less than 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang.
“How this assembly of galaxies got so big so fast is a mystery. It wasn’t built up gradually over billions of years, as astronomers might expect. This discovery provides a great opportunity to study how massive galaxies came together to build enormous galaxy clusters,” says Tim Miller, a PhD candidate at Yale University and lead author of one of the papers.
Researchers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX).