Dr. Scott Chapman from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge has just presented the latest results from a collaboration between the MERLIN UK radio telescope array, Keck (at optical wavelengths), the VLA in the US and the Plateau de Bure submillimetre observatory in France. The results show that there was a group of galaxies in the early Universe that experienced an incredible burst of star formation about 2 billion years after the Big Bang. This phenomenal burst of activity was observed in galaxies that were shining a mere 3 billion years after the Big Bang and is thought to have been vastly more dramatic than any star formation we see nowadays.
Remarkably it was only until relatively recently that astronomers detected a similar gathering of sub-mm galaxies in the early Universe. These galaxies are particularly faint in optical wavelengths but very bright in the radio wavelengths. Instruments like SCUBA mounted on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), on Mauna Kea in Hawaii could see the sky in sub-mm wavelengths and so could detect them; allowing astronomers to investigate their nature. Yet astronomers believed that these galaxies were only part of what was going on (star-forming wise) in the early Universe, because SCUBA was good at looking at relatively cooler sub-mm galaxies.
Now, these new results from the collaboration of many telescopes do indeed show a gathering of slightly warmer galaxies, not altogether different from those spied by SCUBA, undergoing dramatic star formation. The observations indicate that these galaxies are surrounded by vast clouds of gas. That gas, the astronomers argue, will keep the star formation going at a tremendous rate for “hundreds of millions of years”.
You can see images from the results and a very cool video here.