October 23, 2021

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Hubble Finds Massive Dead Galaxies From Early Universe Who Ran Out Of Gas


Around 12 billion years ago, our universe was young and was experiencing the peak of its star manufacturing potential. But when a team of researchers recently trained NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope towards the objects during that period, what they found was quite shocking.

They found six massive galaxies that were “dead” – galaxies that had stopped producing new stars.

According to Kate Whitaker, who led the research and is a professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, most massive galaxies in our universe formed when the latter was still young, pretty much right after the big bang.

Yet, for some mysterious reason, the galaxies found by Hubble have shut down, and aren’t making new stars.

As it turns out, these galaxies have merely run out of cold hydrogen – the fuel essential to form new stars – early in their lifetimes. In a study published by Whitaker and her fellow researchers in the journal Nature, the researchers provide new insights into the evolution of our universe.

Images showing two of the six, massive “dead” galaxies. Credits: Joseph DePasquale/NASA

Without the cold hydrogen necessary to kick start star formation, the galaxies are essentially dead. But, the reason why they lost cold hydrogen is still a mystery that researchers are trying to solve.

According to Whitaker, a supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center might have heated up all the gas – rendering it useless for star formation, or the gas could have been expelled from the galaxies. Or they might have simply exhausted all the available gas, and might not have had access to fresh sources.

Researchers are hoping to find answers by studying the galaxies and making further observations.

Finding the galaxies that were so far away in both distance and time was challenging. They used the Hubble Space telescope to locate the galaxies, using a technique known as “gravitational lensing”. And then used the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array in Chile to detect if the galaxies contained cold dust – which is a proxy for the existence of cold hydrogen.

Cover Image: Composite image showing the galaxy cluster MACSJ0138, captured by Hubble space telescope using gravitational lensing. Credit: STScI, Kate Whitaker/ALMA(ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello



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