Primordial Galaxy Discovered, First of Its Kind

MACS1423-z7p64 galaxy
Graphic illustration of how MACS1423-z7p64 was detected via gravitational lensing with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and confirmed by W. M. Keck Observatory’s MOSFIRE. Credit: NASA/W. M. Keck Observatory/A. Hoag/M. Bradac
W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Seven years of meticulous observing have resulted in a cosmic discovery that comes from an era dating back 13.1 billion years, giving scientists a detailed glimpse of what may have happened just after the Big Bang.

Using the world-class W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii, an international team of astronomers from the United States, Australia, and Europe has confirmed the existence of one of the most distant galaxies in the universe.

To characterize the faint galaxy, the discovery team, led by Austin Hoag, a University of California, Davis physics graduate student, used MOSFIRE, the most in-demand instrument on the 10-meter Keck I telescope.

What makes this galaxy extraordinary is that it is ordinary. It is thought to be a common galaxy at that distance and age of the universe. However, such galaxies would normally be too faint to detect. The astronomers used a method called gravitational lensing to magnify the galaxy so they could study it.

“Most objects that we’ve seen at that distance are extremely bright, and probably rare compared to other galaxies,” said Hoag. “We think this galaxy is much more representative of other galaxies of its time.”

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W. M. Keck Observatory Achieves First Light with New Instrument

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

W. M. Keck Observatory overnight captured the very first successful science data from its newest, cutting-edge instrument, the Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI).

KCWI First Light Image
KCWI’s first look at the cosmos involved a spectral image of an exquisitely dense core of an ancient astronomical relic, showcasing the highest spectral resolving power and spatial resolution of the instrument. Credit W. M. Keck Observatory
KCWI captures three-dimensional data, as opposed to the traditional two-dimensional image or spectrum of conventional instruments. In a single observation, it records an image of the object at multiple wavelengths allowing scientists to explore both the spatial dimension (as in an image) and the spectral dimension (or color) of an object.

“I’m thrilled to see this new instrument,” said Keck Observatory Director Hilton Lewis. “It takes years to design and build these very sophisticated instruments. KCWI is a superb example of the application of the most advanced technology to enable the hardest science. I believe it has the potential to transform the science that we do, and continue to keep Keck Observatory right at the forefront of astronomical research.”

KCWI is extremely sensitive, specifically designed to capture high-resolution spectra of ultra-faint celestial bodies with unprecedented detail. It is able to differentiate even the slightest changes in spectral color with a great degree of accuracy.

This powerful capability is key for astronomers because a highly-detailed spectral image allows them to identify a cosmic object’s characteristics, including its temperature, motion, density, mass, distance, chemical composition, and more.

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Ancient Dead Galaxy Sets New Record

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Galaxy ZF-COSMOS-20115
Artist’s impression of galaxy ZF-COSMOS-20115. The galaxy has likely blown off all the gas that caused its rapid star formation and mass growth, and rapidly turned into a compact red galaxy. Credit: CREDIT: Leonard Doublet/Swinburne University of Technology.
An international team of astronomers has, for the first time, spotted a massive, inactive galaxy from a time when the Universe was only 1.65 billion years old. This rare discovery, made using the world-class W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii, could change the way scientists think about the evolution of galaxies.

This research publishes today in the journal Nature, with Professor Karl Glazebrook, director of Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing , as the lead author. To characterize the faint galaxy, the discovery team used MOSFIRE, the most in-demand instrument on the 10-meter Keck I telescope.

“This observation was only possible due to the extreme sensitivity of the new MOSFIRE spectrograph,” said Glazebrook. “It is the absolute best in the world for faint near-IR spectra by a wide margin. Our team is indebted to the accomplishment of Chuck Steidel, Ian McClean, and all the Keck Observatory staff for building and delivering this remarkable instrument.”

Astronomers expect most galaxies from this epoch to be low-mass minnows, busily forming stars. However, this galaxy is ‘a monster’ and inactive.

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NASA Study Using Keck Telescope Hints at Possible Change in Water ‘Fingerprint’ of Comet

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

A trip past the sun may have selectively altered the production of one form of water in a comet – an effect not seen by astronomers before, a new NASA study suggests.

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy & M45
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy passing by the Pleiades star cluster
Astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, observed the Oort cloud comet C/2014 Q2, also called Lovejoy, when it passed near Earth in early 2015. Through NASA’s partnership in the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the team observed the comet at infrared wavelengths a few days after Lovejoy passed its perihelion – or closest point to the sun.

Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology observed the comet C/2014 Q2 – also called Lovejoy – and made simultaneous measurements of the output of H2O and HDO, a variant form of water. This image of Lovejoy was taken on Feb. 4, 2015 – the same day the team made their observations and just a few days after the comet passed its perihelion, or closest point to the sun.

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Astronomy Team Releases Planet-Search Data

UC Santa Cruz press release

An international team of astronomers has released the largest ever compilation of exoplanet-detecting observations made using a technique called the radial velocity method. By making the data public, the team is offering unprecedented access to one of the best exoplanet searches in the world.

Planet Hunters Paul Butler and Steve Vogt
UCSC astronomer Steve Vogt (foreground) with collaborator Paul Butler at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Photo by Laurie Hatch
The data were gathered as part of a two-decade planet-hunting program using a spectrometer called HIRES, built by UC Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Vogt and mounted on the 10-meter Keck-I telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

“HIRES was not specifically optimized to do this type of exoplanet detective work, but has turned out to be a workhorse instrument of the field,” said Vogt, a professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics. “I am very happy to contribute to science that is fundamentally changing how we view ourselves in the universe.”

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Dwarf Star 200 Light Years Away Contains Life’s Building Blocks

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Many scientists believe the Earth was dry when it first formed, and that the building blocks for life on our planet — carbon, nitrogen and water — appeared only later as a result of collisions with other objects in our solar system that had those elements.

Keck in the Dawn
The twin domes of Keck Observatory lit by the first rays of dawn
Today, a UCLA-led team of scientists reports that it has discovered the existence of a white dwarf star whose atmosphere is rich in carbon and nitrogen, as well as in oxygen and hydrogen, the components of water. The white dwarf is approximately 200 light years from Earth and is located in the constellation Boötes.

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Over 100 New Exoplanet Candidates Discovered With W. M. Keck Observatory

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Exoplanet GJ 411
HIRES instrument helps detect potential exoplanets. Artist’s conceptions of the probable planet orbiting a star called GJ 411, courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez.
An international team of astronomers today released a compilation of almost 61,000 individual measurements made on more than 1,600 stars, used to detect exoplanets elsewhere in our Milky Way galaxy. The compilation includes data on over 100 new potential exoplanets. The entire dataset was observed using one of the twin telescopes of the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea over the past two decades. The search for new worlds elsewhere in our Milky Way galaxy is one of the most exciting frontiers in astronomy today. The paper is published in the Astronomical Journal.

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New Planet Imager Delivers First Science

JPL press release

A new device on the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii has delivered its first images, showing a ring of planet-forming dust around a star, and separately, a cool, star-like body, called a brown dwarf, lying near its companion star.

Vortex Coronagraph
The vortex mask with a microscopic view shown on the right. Image Credit: University of Liège/Uppsala University
The device, called a vortex coronagraph, was recently installed inside NIRC2 (Near Infrared Camera 2), the workhorse infrared imaging camera at Keck. It has the potential to image planetary systems and brown dwarfs closer to their host stars than any other instrument in the world.

“The vortex coronagraph allows us to peer into the regions around stars where giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn supposedly form,” said Dmitri Mawet, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, both in Pasadena. “Before now, we were only able to image gas giants that are born much farther out. With the vortex, we will be able to see planets orbiting as close to their stars as Jupiter is to our sun, or about two to three times closer than what was possible before.”

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Astronomers Measure Universe Expansion, Get Hints of ‘New Physics’

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Astronomers have just made a new measurement of the Hubble constant, the rate at which the universe is expanding, and it doesn’t quite line up with a different estimate of the same number. That discrepancy could hint at “new physics” beyond the standard model of cosmology, according to the team, which includes physicists from the University of California, Davis, that made the observation.

Lensed Quasar HE0435-1223
The image of this quasar is split into four by a massive galaxy acting as a gravitational lens. Image credit: Sherry Suyu, European Space Agency/Hubble Space Telescope/NASA
The Hubble constant allows astronomers to measure the scale and age of the universe and measure the distance to the most remote objects we can see, said Chris Fassnacht, a physics professor at UC Davis and a member of the international H0LiCOW (H0 Lenses in COSMOGRAIL’s Wellspring) collaboration, which carried out the work.

Led by Sherry Suyu at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, the H0LICOW team used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and Earth-based telescopes, including the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, to observe three galaxies and arrive at an independent measurement of the Hubble constant. Eduard Rusu, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, is first author on one of five papers describing the work, due to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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KCWI Arrives on the Mountain

W. M. Keck Observatory News Release

Keck Observatory is pushing the cutting edge of scientific discovery with the addition of the world’s most sensitive instrument for measuring the tendrils of faint gas in the intergalactic medium known as the cosmic web. The 5-ton instrument, the size of an ice cream truck, is named the Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI). KCWI will uncover vital clues about the life-cycle of galaxies, helping to unravel mysteries about our universe.

KCWI being lifted off the trailer at Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Jan 20, 2017
KCWI being lifted off the trailer at Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Jan 20, 2017
Physics professor, Christopher Martin, and his team at Caltech, in collaboration with Keck Observatory, University of California Santa Cruz and industrial partners, designed and built the spectrograph to study the cosmic web in unprecedented detail. KCWI will enable astronomers to study many other exceedingly faint objects in the universe as well.

“For decades, astronomers have demonstrated that galaxies evolve. Now, we’re trying to figure out how and why,” says Martin, describing the potential of this instrument. “We know the gas around galaxies is ultimately fueling them, but it is so faint – we still haven’t been able to get a close look at it and understand how this process works.”

The design of KCWI is based on its predecessor, the Palomar Cosmic Web Imager. KCWI will be installed on one of the twin 10-meter Keck Observatory telescopes, the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world. The telescopes’ location on Maunakea provides the most pristine viewing conditions in the world for this science. This unbeatable combination of technology and location will enable KCWI to provide some of the most-detailed glimpses of the universe ever, including the study of gas jets around young stars, the winds of dead stars and even supermassive black holes.

“The best location in the world for astronomy calls for the best tools for astronomy,” said Hilton Lewis, director of the Keck Observatory. “With KCWI on the world’s largest telescope, we are well positioned to develop our understanding of the evolution of galaxies by capturing high-resolution spectra of some of the faintest, most difficult to study objects in the universe in ways never before possible.”

KCWI arrived by ship from Los Angeles on January 20 and was carefully transported up to the observatory atop Maunakea. The instrument will be installed and tested, followed by the first observations in the coming months.