A Galaxy is Born in a Swirling Hydrogen Cloud
23 October 1995
Astronomers from the University of Leiden have discovered an extremely distant, enormous gas cloud. It is probably a 'cocoon' from which one or more galaxies are in the process of being born, soon after the Big Bang. The observations also indicate that this gas cloud is slowly rotating, an entirely new result of great cosmological significance. The discovery was made with the ESO 3.5-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT) at La Silla in Chile by a team consisting of Rob van Ojik, Huub Röttgering, Chris Carilli, George Miley and Malcolm Bremer from Leiden Observatory (The Netherlands) and Duccio Macchetto of the European Space Agency (ESA) stationed in Baltimore, U.S.A. Their extensive observations are reported in an article accepted for publication in the professional European journal `Astronomy and Astrophysics' and also as a chapter of van Ojik's Ph.D. thesis which is defended at the University of Leiden on October 25. This exciting result casts new light on one of the most important questions of modern cosmology, i.e. how lumpy galaxies were 'born' out of the extremely smooth fireball produced during the Big Bang.
Discovery of a Very Distant Infant Galaxy
Among the most important questions which astronomers are now attempting to answer are when and how did galaxies form. This involves a very difficult and time-consuming study of the most distant galaxies that can be perceived with modern telescopes. Because of the extremely long time it has taken their light to reach us, we now observe them, as they looked like soon after the Big Bang.
For some years, the Leiden group has been using a combination of observational techniques at radio and optical telescopes to pinpoint very distant galaxies. In fact, this group has discovered more than half of the sixty most distant galaxies now known.
The majority of these remote galaxies were first detected because of their strong radio emission and many of them were later found to be embedded in clouds of hot gas, mostly consisting of hydrogen. This gas radiates intensely at characteristic wavelengths (colours), also in the optical and infrared parts of the spectrum. These characteristic emission features are shifted towards longer wavelengths when compared with the emission from similar gas measured in laboratories on the Earth. This 'redshift' (Doppler-effect) arises because the distant galaxies and their surrounding gas clouds recede from us at high velocities that are due to the general expansion of the Universe. The larger the distance, the higher is the velocity and the larger the redshift. The redshift is the standard yardstick which astronomers use to measure distance of galaxies .
The distant galaxy 1243+036 (this designation indicates its location in the sky) is one of the half dozen most distant galaxies found so far. It was first detected by the Leiden group three years ago by means of the ESO telescopes at La Silla. Its redshift is z = 3.6, corresponding to a 'look-back' time of about 90 percent of the age of the Universe. In other words, light now reaching the Earth from an object at this large distance was emitted when the age of the Universe was only about 10 percent of what it is now. It is believed that most galaxies and groups of galaxies formed at this early epoch or soon thereafter.
The Hydrogen Cloud around 1243+036
The spectacular properties of galaxy 1243+036 were first revealed when long-exposure images with the SUSI camera at the ESO 3.5-metre NTT showed an extensive, surrounding cloud of gas. The redshifted Lyman-alpha emission by the hydrogen atoms in this cloud was observed with the EMMI instrument at the same telescope in the spectroscopic mode during a 4-hour exposure. These observations profited from excellent sky conditions; in both cases, the seeing was 0.6 arcseconds. Moreover, the galaxy was observed in the radio region of the spectrum with the Very Large Array of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico, U.S.A.
When the optical and radio images are combined, it is seen that a radio 'jet' emerges from the centre of the galaxy and interacts vigorously with the inner region of the gas cloud. This jet is believed to be a narrow stream of high-energy electrons spewed out at the edge of a black hole located at the center of the galaxy. Such jets are often seen in distant radio galaxies.
But the most intriguing property of 1243+036 is revealed by the faint glow from the hydrogen atoms in the outer regions of the gas cloud, now detected on the EMMI spectra. The extent of this faint light shows that the size of the gas cloud is almost 500,000 light years, i.e. many times larger than the clouds seen around normal galaxies. The mass of this enormous cloud probably exceeds 10,000 million times that of the Sun.
This Press Release is accompanied by ESO Press Photo eso9528a [86K] with an explanatory text that shows these features.
The Giant Hydrogen Cloud Rotates!
Even more exciting, the astronomers also found that the measured wavelength of the Lyman-alpha emission from the hydrogen gas differs slightly, but systematically from one side of the cloud to the other. The difference implies that the two extremities of the cloud are rushing away from us with speeds that differ by 450 km/s. This is the first time ever that organized motion in such a large and distant structure has been detected and measured.
According to van Ojik and his colleagues, the most likely explanation of the variation in speed is that the huge gas cloud rotates in such a way that the Northwest edge is receding and the Southeast edge is approaching, relative to the embedded galaxy at its centre. The measured size of the cloud and the rotation velocity indicate that it has made about one complete revolution since the Big Bang.
The cloud around 1243+036 may be a relic of the earliest stages of formation of this galaxy. The observed motion may in fact represent a typical state of the gas around primeval galaxies in the young Universe, before it is affected by the violent motion of the material that is now observed as a radio jet.
As this cloud rotates, gas falls towards the centre, feeding mass and energy to the black hole while smaller clumps of gas contract and form stars. In this way, the enormous, rotating gas cloud "gives birth" to the galaxy and possibly to an entire group or cluster of galaxies.
Some theories of galaxy and cluster formation predict the existence of such giant rotating clouds in the early Universe. The discovery of the cloud around the galaxy 1243+036 with exactly these properties provides the first evidence in favour of such models.