15 August 2013

Observation From Hubble CANDELS Survey Helps Visualize Galaxies 11 BIllion Years Ago

Galaxies are classified through a system devised by Edwin Hubble known as the Hubble Sequence. With the help of Hubble Space Telescope (named after the astronomer himself) and the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS), data helped visualize the Hubble Sequence 11 billion years ago. Previous data has shown the Hubble Sequence of the Universe 8 billion years back.

The size, shape, form and even color of galaxies before are different from how it looks like today (see images at end of article). The physical formation has changed and are still changing and developing. Using two cameras aboard the Hubble Space Telescope, the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), CANDELS is set to explore the evolution of galaxies in the Universe and collect data that can give a glimpse of the Universe 1 billion years before the Big Bang.

Previous data were limited to the visible light spectrum which shows only the redshifted ultraviolet emission of the galaxies, which highlights star formation. By looking into the infrared spectrum of light (invisible to the human eye), the astronomers could observe how these distant galaxies appear in their visible rest frame (which is now redshifted), making it easier to compare to nearby galaxies.

Hubble's CANDELS Project and the Universe

Astronomers have used observations from Hubble’s CANDELS survey to explore the sizes, shapes, and colours of distant galaxies over the last 80% of the Universe’s history. In the Universe today galaxies come in a variety of different forms, and are classified via a system known as the Hubble Sequence — and it turns out that this sequence was already in place as early as 11 billion years ago.

The Hubble Sequence classifies galaxies according to their morphology and star-forming activity, organising them into a cosmic zoo of spiral, elliptical, and irregular shapes with whirling arms, fuzzy haloes and bright central bulges. Two main types of galaxy are identified in this sequence: elliptical and spiral, with a third type, lenticular, settling somewhere between the two.

This accurately describes what we see in the region of space around us, but how does galaxy morphology change as we look further back in time, to when the Universe was very young?

"This is a key question: when and over what timescale did the Hubble Sequence form?" says BoMee Lee of the University of Massachusetts, USA, lead author of a new paper exploring the sequence. "To do this you need to peer at distant galaxies and compare them to their closer relatives, to see if they too can be described in the same way."

The astronomers used Hubble to look 11 billion years back in time to when the Universe was very young, exploring the anatomy of distant galaxies.

While it was known that the Hubble Sequence holds true as far back as around 8 billion years ago, these new observations push a further 2.5 billion years back in cosmic time, covering a huge 80% of the past history of the Universe. Previous studies had also reached into this epoch of the cosmos to study lower-mass galaxies, but none had conclusively also looked at large, mature galaxies like the Milky Way. The new CANDELS observations confirm that all galaxies this far back — big and small alike — fit into the different classifications of the sequence.

"This is the only comprehensive study to date of the visual appearance of the large, massive galaxies that existed so far back in time," says co-author Arjen van der Wel of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. "The galaxies look remarkably mature, which is not predicted by galaxy formation models to be the case that early on in the history of the Universe."

The galaxies at these earlier times appear to be split between blue star-forming galaxies with a complex structure — including discs, bulges, and messy clumps — and massive red galaxies that are no longer forming stars, as seen in the nearby Universe.

Galaxies as massive as the Milky Way or more are rather rare in the young Universe. This scarcity has prevented previous studies from being able to gather a large enough sample of mature galaxies to properly describe their characteristics.

What was needed was a systematic set of observations such as those from Hubble's CANDELS survey, which was large enough to allow the astronomers to analyse a larger number of these galaxies consistently, and in detail. With Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), the astronomers were able to observe in the infrared part of the spectrum to see how the galaxies appeared in their visible rest-frame, which is easier to compare with galaxies in our neighbourhood.

"The huge CANDELS dataset was a great resource for us to use in order to consistently study ancient galaxies in the early Universe," concludes Lee. "And the resolution and sensitivity of Hubble's WFC3 is second to none in the infrared wavelengths needed to carry out this study. The Hubble Sequence underpins a lot of what we know about how galaxies form and evolve — finding it to be in place this far back is a significant discovery."

The images show a "slice" of the Universe from 11 billion years back in time up to today. The shape is that of the Hubble tuning fork diagram, which describes and separates galaxies according to their morphology into spiral (S), elliptical (E), and lenticular (S0) galaxies. On the left of this diagram are the ellipticals, with lenticulars in the middle, and the spirals branching out on the right side. The spirals on the bottom branch have bars cutting through their centres. The galaxies at these distances from us are small and still in the process of forming.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Kornmesser


Hubble Space Telescope
CANDELS - Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey
CANDELS: The Correlation Between Galaxy Morphology and Star Formation Activity at Z~2
Forming the present-day spiral galaxies
Hubble Cosmos Survey Solves Mystery Behind Quenched Galaxy Growth
Rare Galaxy Class Identified - Green Bean Galaxy J2240
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array Pinpoints More Than A Hundred Star Forming Galaxies
Collisions Between Massive Elliptical Galaxies Result In Increased Mass Density
Possible Visual Evidence of a Dark Galaxy Spotted By VLT
Galaxy Pair Arp 116 Imaged By Hubble Space Telescope
Starburst Galaxies Effect Far Into The Universe Than Initially Believed
Gas Outflow From Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253) Hints At Scarcity Of High Mass Galaxies
VLT Survey Telescope (VST) Captures Powerful Images of Galaxies
Galaxy Sized Cloud of Hydrogen Gas Discovered in Supposedly Empty Region of Space
New Class of Galaxy-Black Hole System With Black Hole Of Mass Equal To 11 Billion Suns Discovered