Astronomers Find Massive Star Making Galaxy Cluster

Posted September 12th, 2015 at 8:10 pm (UTC-5)
1 comment

SpARCS1049+56 is a massive cluster of galaxies that creates hundreds of new stars each year.  It's pictured here in this multi-wavelength view from NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. (NASA/STScI/ESA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

SpARCS1049+56 is a massive cluster of galaxies that creates hundreds of new stars each year. It’s pictured here in this multi-wavelength view from NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. (NASA/STScI/ESA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

Astronomers have discovered a distant and massive galaxy cluster with a gigantic and prolific galaxy at its heart that’s pumping out hundreds of stars each year.

The galaxy cluster is named SpARCS 1049+56 and is located about 9.8 billion light years from Earth in the Ursa Major constellation.

Galaxy clusters are areas of the universe where perhaps hundreds of galaxies group together and are bound to each other by gravity. Contained within these galaxies are trillions of stars, along with hot gas and mysterious dark matter.

The astronomers found that this newly discovered galaxy cluster contains at least 27 galaxies, has a total mass equal to about 400 trillion suns, and is producing more than 860 stars per year. By comparison, scientists say our Milky Way galaxy only creates about one star each year.

The Milky Way galaxy itself dwells within a small galaxy group called the Local Group, which is also on the edge of the Laniakea supercluster that contains some 100,000 galaxies.

The discovery of the unique galaxy cluster was outlined in a study that has been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal for publication.

“Usually, the stars at the centers of galaxy clusters are old and dead, essentially fossils,” said lead author Tracy Webb of Montreal’s McGill University. “But we think the giant galaxy at the center of this cluster is furiously making new stars after merging with a smaller galaxy,” he said in press release.

The astronomers noted that, usually, most of these massive clusters has a huge galaxy that is slow to create new stars residing in its core.

But after conducting some visible light observations with the Hubble Space Telescope, it was found that the enormous galaxy at the heart of SpARCS 1049+56 may have merged with a smaller but gas-rich galaxy.  By siphoning off gas or star making fuel from the smaller galaxy, the larger of the two has been able to become a powerful and fertile star-making machine.

Hubble/Spitzer images of SpARCS1049+56 galaxy cluster. Right panel highlights the larger central galaxy and the remains of the smaller galaxy called the tidal tail.NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. (NASA/ESA/STScI/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

Hubble/Spitzer images of SpARCS1049+56 galaxy cluster. Right panel highlights the larger central galaxy and the remains of the smaller galaxy called the tidal tail.NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. (NASA/ESA/STScI/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

“Hubble found a train wreck of a merger at the center of this galaxy,” said Webb.

The astronomers said that they believe their newly found galaxy cluster could possibly be a representation of a much earlier time in our universe when it was common for galaxies to tap off fuel from other gas-rich galaxies.

The star cluster was first found by astronomers who used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii land based telescope that’s located atop Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawaii. The W.M. Keck Observatory, also on Mauna Kea, was used to confirm the discovery.

Along with the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, the astronomers used observations made by the Herschel Space Observatory. The Herschel was built by the European Space Agency who along with NASA operated it from 2009 until it was decommissioned in 2013.

The Astronomers who found SpARCS1049+56 said that they’re planning to conduct further studies to find similar galaxy clusters and determine just how common they might be.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

One response to “Astronomers Find Massive Star Making Galaxy Cluster”

  1. Deo Isaack Kapufi says:

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