Press Release

UVES Investigates the Environment of a Very Remote Galaxy

Surplus of Intergalactic Material May Be Young Supercluster

11 March 2002

Observations with ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) have enabled an international group of astronomers [1] to study in unprecedented detail the surroundings of a very remote galaxy, almost 12 billion light-years distant [2]. The corresponding light travel time means that it is seen at a moment only about 3 billion years after the Big Bang. This galaxy is designated MS 1512-cB58 and is the brightest known at such a large distance and such an early time. This is due to a lucky circumstance: a massive cluster of galaxies (MS 1512+36) is located about halfway along the line-of-sight, at a distance of about 7 billion light-years, and acts as a gravitational "magnifying glass." Thanks to this lensing effect, the image of MS1512-cB58 appears 50 times brighter. Nevertheless, the apparent brightness is still as faint as magnitude 20.6 (i.e., nearly 1 million times fainter than what can be perceived with the unaided eye). Moreover, MS 1512-cB58 is located 36° north of the celestial equator and never rises more than 29° above the horizon at Paranal. It was therefore a great challenge to secure the present observational data with the UVES high-dispersion spectrograph on the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope. The extremely detailed UVES-spectrum of MS 1512-cB58 displays numerous signatures (absorption lines) of intergalactic gas clouds along the line-of-sight . Some of the clouds are quite close to the galaxy and the astronomers have therefore been able to investigate the distribution of matter in its immediate surroundings. They found an excess of material near MS 1512-cB58, possible evidence of a young supercluster of galaxies , already at this very early epoch. The new observations thus provide an invaluable contribution to current studies of the birth and evolution of structures in the early Universe. This is the first time this kind of observation has ever been done of a galaxy at such a large distance . All previous studies were based on much more luminous quasars (QSOs - extremely active galaxy nuclei). However, any investigation of the intergalactic matter around a quasar is complicated by the strong radiation and consequently, high ionization of the gas by the QSO itself, rendering an unbiased assessment of the gas distribution impossible.

Clustering in the Early Universe

With new and powerful astronomical telescopes, the exploration of the young Universe is progressing rapidly . By means of highly efficient instruments, scientists are now probing the objects seen at these early times in ever greater detail, painstakingly gaining precious new knowledge about these crucial evolutionary stages. They form an integral part of the long chain of events that has ultimately led to our own existence - no wonder that we would like to know more about those remote times!

One of the key questions now asked by cosmologists is how the matter in the early Universe assembled into larger structures . With plenty of gaseous material available, it appears that contraction set in rather soon after the Big Bang, perhaps only a few hundred million years after this initial explosion. Stars and proto-galaxies formed, a web-like structure emerged and at some moment, these larger building blocks began to gather into "clusters" and "clusters of clusters" (superclusters) .

This process took time and it is not yet known when the first major clusters of galaxies formed. However, recent results from the ESO Very Large Telescope at Paranal are casting new light on those early events and may actually provide evidence of an extensive cluster of clouds, perhaps a real supercluster, as early as only 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

The lighthouse and the forest

In order to investigate the large-scale structure of the Universe, astronomers have since some time employed the powerful technique of spectral analysis of the light from remote "lighthouses" (or "beacons").

One of the strongest spectral lines seen in astronomical objects is the Lyman-alpha line of atomic hydrogen . It is normally seen as a bright spectral peak (an "emission line") in the "lighthouse" object. The rest wavelength is 121.6 nm in the far-ultraviolet part of the spectrum. That spectral region is not accessible to ground-based telescopes - UV-light does not pass through the Earth's atmosphere. However, in very distant objects, the Lyman-alpha line is redshifted towards longer wavelengths and becomes observable from the ground [2].

On its way to us, the light beam from a bright and distant object traverses a long path, mostly through (nearly) empty space. However, once in a while, it passes through a cloud of matter, for instance in the outskirts of a remote galaxy. Each time, specific signatures from the atoms and molecules in that cloud are imprinted on the passing light in the form of spectral absorption lines at particular wavelengths. Such clouds contain hydrogen and thus produce a specific Lyman-alpha signature in the spectrum of the "lighthouse" object [3]

Because of the different distances of the individual clouds, their Lyman-alpha spectral lines have different "redshifts" and are therefore observed at different wavelengths. In practice, the Lyman-alpha absorption lines from the intervening clouds are located on the blueward side (i.e., at shorter wavelengths because of their smaller redshifts) of the main emission peak, giving rise to the concept of a "Lyman-alpha forest" of spectral absorption lines. In some cases, over one thousand absorption lines have been seen, showing the presence of as many individual hydrogen-rich gas clouds along the line-of-sight towards the background "lighthouse", cf. eso9915 and eso0008.

MS 1512-cB58: a bright and remote galaxy

MS 1512-cB58 is a remote, very bright galaxy, located at a distance of approximately 12 billion light-years in the northern constellation of Boötes. Its light has travelled 12 billion years to reach us and we therefore observe it as it was when the Universe was about 3 billion years old. Because of the extremely large distance, this galaxy would normally only be seen as a very faint object in the sky, so faint indeed that it could not be observed in any detail by existing telescopes.

However, we are lucky, thanks to the fortuitious effect of gravitational lensing . About halfway on its way to us, the light from MS 1512-cB58 happens to pass through the strong gravitational field of a cluster of galaxies known as MS 1512+36 and this produces an amazingly efficient focussing effect: the light from MS 1512-cB58 that finally reaches us has been amplified no less than some 50 times!

This beneficial effect makes all the difference. At the observed magnitude of 20.6 - though still nearly 1 million times fainter than what can be perceived with the unaided eye - MS 1512-cB58 is the best suited remote object of its type for the above mentioned kind of investigation. Thus, a detailed study of its spectrum, in particular the spectral region on the shortward side of the Lyman-alpha line (seen in absorption in this comparatively "normal" galaxy), provides very useful information about the many clouds of hydrogen that are located along the line-of-sight towards this object.

The UVES spectrum

Using one of the most efficient astronomical spectrographs available, the Ultraviolet-Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) at the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory , an international group of astronomers [1] succeeded in obtaining a very detailed (high-dispersion) spectrum of MS 1512-cB58 .

Despite the fact that this object is located some 36° north of the celestial equator and can therefore only be observed for about 90 min each night from Paranal (at geographical latitude 25° south), the superposition of several exposures obtained between March and August 2000 has produced the most detailed and informative spectrum ever obtained of a distant galaxy, cf. ESO Press Photos eso0208-c .

At the same time, it provides a very comprehensive map of the Universe to such a large distance along a line-of-sight, as this can be read from the numerous Lyman-alpha absorption lines from intervening clouds, seen in this spectrum.

The surroundings of MS 1512-cB58

The astronomers were particularly interested in the distribution of clouds in the region of space near MS 1512-cB58 . Thanks to the excellent quality of the UVES data, it was possible to identify and measure a substantial number of Lyman-alpha lines blueward of the broad Lyman-alpha absorption line from the galaxy itself, present in the lower panel of ESO Press Photo eso0109 . They correspond to intergalactic hydrogen clouds comparatively near the "lighthouse" object MS 1512-cB58 .

Most interestingly, it turned out that there are exceptionally many such clouds rather near this remote galaxy (the corresponding absorption lines are seen in the middle panel of ESO Press Photo eso0109 of which a small part has been enlarged for clarity in ESO Press Photo eso0109 . Comparing with the mean density along the line-of-sight, a surplus of about 200% was evident. An effect of this dimension has never been seen before near such a remote object, i.e., at such an early epoch, only 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

A young supercluster?

What does this tell us? The astronomers have two explanations: either we are seeing a very large cluster of clouds (proto-galaxies) at some distance from MS 1512-cB58, or the clouds are in some way directly connected to the environment of that galaxy. A rich distribution of gas clouds is indeed expected around star-forming galaxies like MS 1512-cB58 at this early epoch.

For various reasons, however, including the actual distribution of the observed clouds, the astronomers do not favour the second hypothesis. It appears more likely that these clouds are separate objects not related to MS 1512-cB58 . In that case, this would imply the presence of large-scale structure at this early time, only 3 billion years after the Big Bang. MS 1512-cB58 might then be the largest (heaviest) single object in the neigbourhood, a likely progenitor of the local massive galaxies observed at the present time.


[1]: The team consists of Sandra Savaglio (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA, and Rome Observatory, Italy), Nino Panagia and Paolo Padovani (both European Space Agency and Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore)

[2]: The measured redshift of MS 1512-cB58 is z = 2.724. In astronomy, the redshift denotes the fraction by which the lines in the spectrum of an object are shifted towards longer wavelengths. The observed redshift of a distant cloud or galaxy gives a direct estimate of the apparent recession velocity as caused by the universal expansion. Since the expansion rate increases with distance, the velocity is itself a function (the Hubble relation) of the distance to the object. The distances indicated in the text are based on an age of the Universe of 15 billion years. At the indicated redshift, the Lyman-alpha line of atomic hydrogen (rest wavelength 121.6 nm) is observed at 452.8 nm, i.e. in the blue spectral region. The Lyman-alpha absorption lines from intergalactic clouds along the line-of-sight (and at lower redshifts) are observed at shorter wavelengths. The lower limit of the UVES spectrum of MS 1512-cB58 (415 nm) corresponds to a Lyman-alpha redshift of 2.41, i.e. a distance of about 7.5 billion light-years.

[3]: The importance of the Lyman-alpha line in absorption is that it is exquisitely sensitive to the presence of neutral hydrogen which only constitutes a small fraction of the total amount of hydrogen in the intergalactic medium (about 1/10,000). Still, the observed Ly-alpha forest is extremely rich. What we see is most likely the "tip of the iceberg" only and hydrogen in the intergalactic medium at high redshift is probably the dominant component of baryonic matter in the early Universe.

More information

The results described in this Press Release are presented in a research paper "The Lyman-alpha forest of a Lyman-Break Galaxy: VLT Spectra of MS 1512-cB58 at z = 2.724" by Sandra Savaglio, Nino Panagia and Paolo Padovani, appearing in the research journal "Astrophysical Journal" this month.

Technical information about the photos

ESO Press Photo eso0208 is a reproduction of a composite image of the field around the distant cluster of galaxies MS 1512+36 (redshift 0.37), obtained with the WFPC2 camera at the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It is based on exposures in two filters (F555 + F675). The observations are described in a research paper by Seitz et al. (Monthly Notices of the RAS, August 1998, Vol. 298, p. 945 ff). The lensed image of the galaxy MS 1512-cB58 is seen at an angular distance of about 5 arcsec from the centre of the cluster. The north direction is at about 1 o'clock and east is at 10 o'clock. The field measures approx. 45 x 60 arcsec 2. ESO Press Photo eso0208 shows the composite spectrum of MS 1512-cB58 in the spectral region of interest (415.0 - 459.5 nm), as obtained with the red and blue arms of UVES. Long and short red vertical lines ("ticks") indicate larger and smaller intergalactic hydrogen clouds, respectively. The overlying, continuous red line is the "best-fit" model to the observed spectrum. Due to the low altitude of the object, the exposures never lasted more than 90 min around the northern meridian. The full spectral coverage is 415 - 500 nm (blue arm) and 524 - 621 nm (red arm). The velocity resolution varies from 29 km/s at the blue end to 19 km/sec at the red limit. The S/N-ratio increases from about 3 (415 nm) to 10 (610 nm). ESO Press Photo eso0208 reproduces a smaller part of the observed spectral region observed at full resolution (434.8 - 443.0 nm), with two dozen detected clouds indicated.


Sandra Savaglio
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, USA
Tel: +1 410 516 8583

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About the Release

Release No.:eso0208
Legacy ID:PR 03/02
Name:MS 1512-cB58, Spectrum
Type:Early Universe : Galaxy : Type : Gravitationally Lensed
Early Universe : Galaxy : Grouping : Cluster
Facility:Very Large Telescope
Science data:2002ApJ...567..702S


Distant galaxy MS 1512-cB58
Distant galaxy MS 1512-cB58
Spectrum of the distant galaxy MS 1512-cB58
Spectrum of the distant galaxy MS 1512-cB58
Spectrum of the distant galaxy MS 1512-cB58 (detail)
Spectrum of the distant galaxy MS 1512-cB58 (detail)