ALMA Finds Earliest Example of Merging Galaxies

17 June, 2019

Scientific Paper

Researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observed the earliest combined signals of oxygen, carbon, and dust from a galaxy in the Universe, 13 billion years ago. By comparing the different signals, the team determined that the galaxy is, in fact, two merging galaxies, making it the earliest example of merging galaxies yet discovered.

Takuya Hashimoto at Waseda University, Japan, and his team used ALMA to observe B14-65666, an object located 13 billion light-years away in the constellation Sextans. Because of the finite speed of light, the signals we receive from B14-65666 today had to travel for 13 billion years to reach us. In other words, they show us the image of what the galaxy looked like 13 billion years ago, less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

ALMA achieved the earliest observation of radio emissions from oxygen, carbon, and dust in B14-65666. The detection of multiple signals allows astronomers to retrieve complementary information.

Data analysis showed that the emissions are divided into two blobs. Previous observations with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) had revealed two-star clusters in B14-65666. Now, with the three emission signals detected by ALMA, the team was able to show that the two blobs do in-fact form a single system, but with different speeds; which indicates that the blobs are two merging galaxies. The earliest known example of merging galaxies. The research team estimated that the total stellar mass of B14-65666 is less than 10% that of the Milky Way, meaning that it’s in its earliest phases of evolution. Despite its youth, B14-65666 is producing stars 100 times more actively than the Milky Way. Such active star-formation rate is another signature of galactic mergers because the gas compression in colliding galaxies naturally leads to bursty star-formation.

“With rich data from ALMA and HST, combined with advanced data analysis, we could put the pieces together to show that B14-65666 is a pair of merging galaxies in the earliest era of the Universe,” explains Hashimoto. “Detection of radio waves from three components in such a distant object demonstrates ALMA’s high capability to investigate the distant Universe.”

Present galaxies like our Milky Way have experienced countless, often violent, mergers. Sometimes a more massive galaxy swallowed a smaller one. In rare cases, galaxies with similar sizes merged to form a new, larger galaxy. Mergers are essential for galaxy evolution, attracting many astronomers eager to trace back them.

“Our next step is to search for nitrogen, another major chemical element, and even the carbon monoxide molecule,” said Akio Inoue, a professor at Waseda University. “Ultimately, we hope to observationally understand the circulation and accumulation of elements and material in the context of galaxy formation and evolution.”

Additional Information

These observation results were published as T. Hashimoto et al. “’Big Three Dragons’: a z = 7.15 Lyman Break Galaxy Detected in [OIII] 88 um, [CII] 158 um, and Dust Continuum with ALMA” in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan on June 18, 2019.

The research team members are: Takuya Hashimoto (Waseda University/Osaka Sangyo University/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan), Akio Inoue (Waseda University/Osaka Sangyo University), Ken Mawatari (Osaka Sangyo University/The University of Tokyo), Yoichi Tamura (Nagoya University), Hiroshi Matsuo (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI), Hisanori Furusawa (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan), Yuichi Harikane (The University of Tokyo), Takatoshi Shibuya (Kitami Institute of Technology), Kirsten K. Knudsen (Chalmers University of Technology), Kotaro Kohno (The University of Tokyo), Yoshiaki Ono (The University of Tokyo), Erik Zackrisson (Uppsala University), Takashi Okamoto (Hokkaido University), Nobunari Kashikawa (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI/ The University of Tokyo), Pascal A. Oesch (University of Geneva), Masami Ouchi (The University of Tokyo/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan), Kazuaki Ota (Kyoto University), Ikkoh Shimizu (Osaka University), Yoshiaki Taniguchi (The Open University of Japan), Hideki Umehata (The Open University of Japan/RIKEN), Darach Watson (University of Copenhagen).

This research was supported by MEXT/JSPS KAKENHI (No. 26287034, 17H01114, 17H06130, 18H04333, 16H02166, 17K14252, JP17H01111, 16J03329, 15H02064, 19J01620), NAOJ ALMA Scientific Research Grant Number 2016-01A, Swedish National Space Board, Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, and Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning, and operation of ALMA.

Images

Composite image of B14-65666 showing the distributions of dust (red), oxygen (green), and carbon (blue), observed by ALMA and stars (white) observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Hashimoto et al.

Composite image of B14-65666 showing the distributions of dust (red), oxygen (green), and carbon (blue), observed by ALMA and stars (white) observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Hashimoto et al.

 

Artist’s impression of the merging galaxies B14-65666 located 13 billion light-years away. Credit: NAOJ.

Artist’s impression of the merging galaxies B14-65666 located 13 billion light-years away. Credit: NAOJ.