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Under Construction: Distant Galaxy Churning Out Stars at Remarkable Rate

For Release: December 8, 2016

CXC

Cyg X-3's Little Friend
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Florida/J.Ma et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Radio: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/ALMA
Press Image and Caption

Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes to show that a recently-discovered galaxy is undergoing an extraordinary boom of stellar construction. The galaxy is 12.7 billion light years from Earth, seen at a critical stage in the evolution of galaxies about a billion years after the Big Bang.

After astronomers discovered the galaxy, known as SPT 0346-52, with the National Science Foundation's South Pole Telescope (SPT), they observed it with several space and other ground-based telescopes. Data from the international Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) previously revealed extremely bright infrared emission, suggesting that the galaxy is undergoing a tremendous burst of star birth.

However, an alternative explanation remained: Was much of the infrared emission instead caused by a rapidly growing supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center? Gas falling towards the black hole would become much hotter and brighter, causing surrounding dust and gas to glow in infrared light. To explore this possibility, researchers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, a radio telescope.

No X-rays or radio waves were detected, so astronomers were able to rule out a black hole being responsible for most of the bright infrared light.

"We now know that this galaxy doesn't have a gorging black hole, but instead is shining brightly with the light from newborn stars," said Jingzhe Ma of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, who led the new study. "This gives us information about how galaxies and the stars within them evolve during some of the earliest times in the Universe."

Stars are forming at a rate of about 4,500 times the mass of the Sun every year in SPT0346-52, one of the highest rates seen in a galaxy. This is in contrast to a galaxy like the Milky Way that only forms about one solar mass of new stars per year.

"Astronomers call galaxies with lots of star formation 'starburst' galaxies," said co-author Anthony Gonzalez, also of the University of Florida. "That term doesn’t seem to do this galaxy justice, so we are calling it a 'hyper-starburst' galaxy."

The high rate of star formation implies that a large reservoir of cool gas in the galaxy is being converted into stars with unusually high efficiency.

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