Recently, scientists got a better look at a distant part of our universe and learned that spiral galaxies started forming a billion years earlier than previously thought. Though the picture is fuzzy, it told scientists all they needed to know.
The photo was taken by a team of Japanese astronomers who were using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) that’s located in Chile. The light from this photo shows a galaxy that’s 12.4 billion years old, which suggests that it must have formed roughly 1.4 billion years after the Big Bang. Researchers noted in their study that the Array detected carbon ion emissions from the galaxy as well.
While this might not sound like a big deal, scientists think that the early universe was filled mostly with smaller protogalaxies that lacked an identifiable structure. Current beliefs—at least those held before seeing data—hold that these protogalaxies were just clumps of matter colliding with each other and occasionally even merging with one another. We didn’t think they had started taking the iconic shape of a spiral galaxy (seen below) at that point.
Scientists are still unsure how the spiral arms and bulging centers in certain galaxies are formed. One of the leading theories suggests that the arms came to detach from the main central mass through tidal interactions with other nearby galaxies. Another theory claims that the arms are made of matter pulled from other nearby galaxies. Either theory seems plausible, and hopefully this new data, as it continues to be studied, can shed a little more light.
“When and how the galaxies were formed is a perennial mystery being explored in astronomy,” stated Satoru Iguchi, co-author of the study and astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and SOKENDAI. “We discovered a spiral morphology in the galaxy BRI1335-0417 … and, for the first time, demonstrated the most distant spiral galaxy long before the peak of the cosmic star formation.”
Federico Lelli, an astronomer at the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Italy said, “This study falls in line with recent discoveries of surprisingly ‘mature’ galaxies in the primeval Universe. Previous observations with the ALMA telescope revealed that regularly rotating gas disks and massive stellar bulges are in place only 1 billion years after the Big Bang. This work provides evidence for one more sign of ‘maturity’: spiral arms.”
Lelli led a similar study earlier this year, taking a look at a galaxy named ALESS 073.1. This galaxy, like the one studied by the Japanese team, also formed soon after the Big Bang. His team also discovered a central bulge and a rotating disc of gas surrounding it. With newer telescopes like ALMA available for use, it will be easier for astronomers to get more accurate information on early galaxies and other elements. It’s so exciting!