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Growth Of Galaxies Observed By ESO's Very Large Telescope

6 July, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com - Astronomers using ESO's Very Large Telescope have spotted a distant galaxy pulling in and devouring nearby material in order to grow and form stars.

This is the best direct observational evidence so far supporting the theory about growth of galaxies.

Now ESO's Very Large Telescope has been used to study a very rare alignment between a distant galaxy and an even more distant quasar - the extremely bright center of a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole.



Click on image to enlarge

This artistís impression shows a galaxy in the distant Universe, just two billion years after the Big Bang, in the process of pulling in cool gas (shown in orange) from its surroundings.
Astronomers have been able to find out a lot about this object by studying not just the galaxy, but also the light of a much more distant quasar (the bright object to the left of the central galaxy), which happens to be in the right place to shine through the accreting gas. The motions of the gas and its composition fit very well with theories of cool gas accretion as a way of feeding star formation and galaxy growth. Credit: ESO/L. CalÁada/ESA/AOES Medialab


The light from the quasar passes through the material around the foreground galaxy before reaching Earth, making it possible to explore in detail the properties of the gas around the galaxy.

"This kind of alignment is very rare and it has allowed us to make unique observations," explains Nicolas Bouchť of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, lead author of the new paper.

"We were able to use ESO's Very Large Telescope to peer at both the galaxy itself and its surrounding gas. This meant we could attack an important problem in galaxy formation: how do galaxies grow and feed star formation?"

Galaxies quickly deplete their reservoirs of gas as they create new stars, and so must somehow be continuously replenished with fresh gas to keep going.

"The properties of this vast volume of surrounding gas were exactly what we would expect to find if the cold gas was being pulled in by the galaxy," says co-author Michael Murphy at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.


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Artist's impression of a galaxy accreting material from its surroundings


vvvv "The gas is moving as expected, there is about the expected amount and it also has the right composition to fit the models perfectly. It's like feeding time for lions at the zoo - this particular galaxy has a voracious appetite, and we've discovered how it feeds itself to grow so quickly."

Astronomers have already found evidence of material around galaxies in the early Universe, but this is the first time that they have been able to show clearly that the material is moving inwards rather than outwards, and also to determine the composition of this fresh fuel for future generations of stars.

Without the quasar's light to act as a probe this surrounding gas would be undetectable.

The results are published in the 5 July 2013 issue of the journal Science.

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