Merging Galaxies in the Early Universe

I just saw this little movie circulated by the European Space Agency.

The  source displayed in the video was first identified by European Space Agency’s now-defunct Herschel Space Observatory, and later imaged with much higher resolution using the ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. It’s a significant discovery because it shows two large galaxies at quite high redshift (z=5.655) undergoing a major merger. According to the standard cosmological model this event occurred about a billion years after the Big Bang. The first galaxies are thought to have formed after a few hundred million years, but these objects are expected to have been be much smaller than present-day galaxies like the Milky Way. Major mergers of the type seen apparently seen here are needed if structures are to grow sufficiently rapidly, through hierarchical clustering, to produce what we see around us now, about 13.7 Gyrs after the Big Bang.

The ESA press release can be found here and for more expert readers the refereed paper (by Riechers et al.) can be found here (if you have a subscription to the Astrophysical Journal or for free on the arXiv here.

The abstract (which contains a lot of technical detail about the infra-red/millimetre/submillimetre observations involved in the study) reads:

We report the detection of ADFS-27, a dusty, starbursting major merger at a redshift of z=5.655, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ADFS-27 was selected from Herschel/SPIRE and APEX/LABOCA data as an extremely red “870 micron riser” (i.e., S_250<S_350<S_500<S_870), demonstrating the utility of this technique to identify some of the highest-redshift dusty galaxies. A scan of the 3mm atmospheric window with ALMA yields detections of CO(5-4) and CO(6-5) emission, and a tentative detection of H2O(211-202) emission, which provides an unambiguous redshift measurement. The strength of the CO lines implies a large molecular gas reservoir with a mass of M_gas=2.5×10^11(alpha_CO/0.8)(0.39/r_51) Msun, sufficient to maintain its ~2400 Msun/yr starburst for at least ~100 Myr. The 870 micron dust continuum emission is resolved into two components, 1.8 and 2.1 kpc in diameter, separated by 9.0 kpc, with comparable dust luminosities, suggesting an ongoing major merger. The infrared luminosity of L_IR~=2.4×10^13Lsun implies that this system represents a binary hyper-luminous infrared galaxy, the most distant of its kind presently known. This also implies star formation rate surface densities of Sigma_SFR=730 and 750Msun/yr/kpc2, consistent with a binary “maximum starburst”. The discovery of this rare system is consistent with a significantly higher space density than previously thought for the most luminous dusty starbursts within the first billion years of cosmic time, easing tensions regarding the space densities of z~6 quasars and massive quiescent galaxies at z>~3.

The word `riser’ refers to the fact that the measured flux increases with wavelength from the range of wavelengths measured by Herschel/Spire (250 to 500 microns) and up 870 microns. The follow-up observations with higher spectral resolution are based on identifications of carbon monoxide (CO) and water (H20) in the the spectra, which imply the existence of large quantities of gas capable of fuelling an extended period of star formation.

Clearly a lot was going on in this system, a long time ago and a long way away!



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