Astronomers have discovered a massive reservoir of gas in a primeval
galaxy, suggesting that large galaxies formed and began to fizz with
stars earlier than was previously thought. Looking more than 12 billion
years into the past, the scientists found that a quasar - the active
central core in a young galaxy, powered by a black hole - is sitting
next door to enough cold molecular gas to make 100 billion suns. The
scientists report their findings in the 4 January issue of the journal
The members of the research team are Padeli Papadoupoulos of Leiden
Observatory in the Netherlands, Chris Carilli of the National Radio
Astronomy Observatory in the USA, Rob Ivison of University College
London in the UK and Geraint Lewis of the Anglo-Australian Observatory
This is the first time anyone has seen the massive reservoir of cold
gas needed for the frenzies of star formation called 'starbursts'.
gas is spread over a region roughly the size of our own Milky Way
"It's primed and ready to go," said Geraint Lewis. "If it could all
turn into stars at once, we'd have an instant galaxy."
"We were shocked to see such a large gas cloud so early in the
Today's large galaxies are supposed to have been formed by smaller
galaxies merging. "How a large gas cloud due to become a galaxy could
have been formed so early is a bit of a mystery," said Geraint Lewis.
The astronomers found the gas while studying the quasar, called APM
08279+5255, which was discovered in 1998. The quasar has a redshift
3.9, which means that it lies at a distance of about 12 billion
light-years. We see the quasar as it was 12 billion years ago, just
or two billion years after the Big Bang and when the Universe was only
a tenth of its present age.
"This thing is at the edge of the dark ages, before the first stars
the universe were born," said Chris Carilli.
The year after its discovery, APM 08279+5255 was found to have warm
carbon monoxide (CO) gas near its centre, heated by the energy released
as the black hole devours material. Observations with the Very Large
Array radio telescope in New Mexico revealed cold CO gas much more
widely distributed than its warmer counterpart. Based on observations
of closer objects, the astronomers presume the CO gas is accompanied
large amounts of molecular hydrogen gas. Cold CO gas never has been
detected before in such a distant object.
Although APM 08279+5255 is a young galaxy just starting its first
massive burst of star formation, the CO gas indicates that some stars
must have formed even earlier. Carbon and oxygen, the component
elements of CO, are formed in the cores of stars. Their presence in
cold gas tells astronomers that a fleeting crop of extremely massive
stars had been born, lived, then died in violent explosions
(supernovae), spreading these elements throughout the galaxy's
Paradoxically, the galaxy's great distance made it possible to discover
the gas. The expansion of the universe 'stretches' light and radio
waves to longer wavelengths - the more distant the object, the more
stretching occurs. Radio waves emitted by the cold CO gas originally
had wavelengths of about 1.3 and 2.6 millimetres, but were 'redshifted'
to wavelengths of 7 and 13 millimetres, which the Very Large Array
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the US
National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by
Associated Universities, Inc.
For more information:
and images are available at
Dr Geraint F. Lewis, Anglo-Australian Observatory, Sydney, Australia
+61-2-9372-4841 (work) +61-2-8850-5020 (home)
Dr Padeli Papadopoulos, Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands
Dr Rob Ivison, University College London, U.K.
+44 (0)20 7679 3435
Mob +44 (0)7979 368142
Dr Chris Carilli, National Radio Astronomy Observatory,
+1 505 835 7000