Earliest Spiral Galaxy Surprises Astronomers

W. M. Keck press release

In the beginning, galaxies were hot and clumpy – too hot to settle down and form grand spirals like the Milky Way and other galaxies seen in the nearby universe today. But astronomers have now been surprised by the discovery of a solitary grand design spiral galaxy in the early universe which could hold clues to how spirals start to take shape. The find was announced in a report in the July 19 edition of the journal Nature.

The ancient spiral, called BX442, was found by astronomers who first surveyed 300 distant galaxies using the Hubble Space Telescope, then followed up and confirmed using detailed observations and analyses from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

BX442 HST/Keck false colour composite image of galaxy BX442. Credit: David Law; Dunlap Insitute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

“As you go back in time to the early universe — about three billion years after the Big Bang; the light from this galaxy has been travelling to us for about 10.7 billion years —galaxies look really strange, clumpy and irregular, not symmetric” said astronomer Alice Shapley of UCLA. “The vast majority of old galaxies look like train wrecks. Our first thought was, why is this one so different, and so beautiful?”

Not only was the spiral shape clearly visible, but by using Keck’s OSIRIS instrument (OH-Suppressing Infrared Imaging Spectrograph), astronomers were able to study different parts of BX442 and determine that it is, in fact, rotating and not just two unrelated disk galaxies along the same line of sight that give the appearance of being a single spiral galaxy.

“We first thought this could just be an illusion and that perhaps we were being led astray by the picture,” said Shapley, a coauthor on the Nature paper. “What we found when we took spectra of this galaxy is that the spiral arms do belong to this galaxy; it wasn’t an illusion. Not only does it look like a rotating spiral disk galaxy; it really is. We were blown away.”

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