A team of astrophysicists using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii has successfully measured the farthest galaxy ever recorded and more interestingly, captured its hydrogen emission as seen when the Universe was less than 600 million years old. Additionally, the method in which the galaxy called EGSY8p7 was detected gives important insight into how the very first stars in the Universe lit-up after the Big Bang. The paper will be published shortly in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Using Keck Observatory’s powerful infrared spectrograph called MOSFIRE, the team dated the galaxy by detecting its Lyman-alpha emission line – a signature of hot hydrogen gas heated by strong ultraviolet emission from newly born stars. Although this is a frequently detected signature in galaxies close to Earth, the detection of Lyman-alpha emission at such a great distance is unexpected as it is easily absorbed by the numerous hydrogen atoms thought to pervade the space between galaxies at the dawn of the Universe. The result gives new insight into cosmic reionization’, the process by which dark clouds of hydrogen were split into their constituent protons and electrons by the first generation of galaxies.
“We frequently see the Lyman-alpha emission line of hydrogen in nearby objects as it is one of most reliable tracers of star-formation,” said California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomer, Adi Zitrin, lead author of the discovery paper. “However, as we penetrate deeper into the Universe, and hence back to earlier times, the space between galaxies contains an increasing number of dark clouds of hydrogen which absorb this signal.”
Recent work has found the fraction of galaxies showing this prominent line declines markedly after when the Universe was about a billion years old, which is equivalent to a redshift of about 6. Redshift is a measure of how much the Universe has expanded since the light left a distant source and can only be determined for faint objects with a spectrograph on a powerful large telescope such as the Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter telescopes, the largest on Earth.
Astronomy is a science where human timescales become insignificant. It seems like everything we are watching takes millions or even billions of years to occur. To be sure, there are a few things that happen quickly, like supernovae, but those events are the exceptions. Everywhere we look we see the stately dance of stars and galaxies, the formation of worlds. The dance is spread across distances and times so vast that even those who study the universe have difficulty comprehending the sheer immensity involved. Stars and planets take hundreds of thousands of years to form, a galaxy collision may go on for millions of years.
And yet there is a significant portion of our fellow citizens who insist that the universe is only a few thousand years old. I encounter this belief all too often, a dogged insistence that everything was created just a few thousand years ago. There are variations on the theme, with differing numbers, but these beliefs generally accept that our universe and the Earth were formed within the last ten thousand years. Never mind we have literally mountains of evidence to the contrary, when that evidence clashes with worldviews instilled since birth by a religion and parents, a discouraging number of people ignore reality and cling to what they were taught. To admit otherwise would open up too many other dearly held beliefs to questioning, a truly uncomfortable challenge.
To quote Douglas Adams… “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
We are accustomed to using miles or kilometers when considering distance. These are the distances that we experience in our everyday lives. Driving to work or the supermarket, we do not travel very far compared to the distances faced by those who study the stars. Those wanting to discuss distances beyond our little planet, the distances to the stars and galaxies face a quandary… The universe is just too big, when using these familiar units the number of zeros become impractical and the numbers cease to be convenient, or even understandable. To express distances in the cosmos, astronomers just need a bigger tape measure.
When expressing distances among the stars we turn to the same phenomena we use to observe the stars, starlight itself. We know that light travels fast, covering huge distances very quickly. Light, just another form of electromagnetic energy, is a universal constant across the universe, how far it travels in a given time is a convenient standard by which to measure the universe.
In a few minutes light travels across our solar system, in a few years it can reach the nearby stars. Thus a distance unit that makes sense in astronomy… The light-year, the distance light travels in a single year. With this we have a convenient unit of distance, one that links the concepts of distance and time. A simple bit of math converts the light-year into familiar units… 9.45 trillion kilometers or 5.86 trillion miles.