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Ancient Galaxy Churning Out 2,900 Suns A Year Discovered By Astronomers

Apr 17, 2013 03:00 PM EDT

Making stars is such an old habit for a newly-discovered starburst galaxy, so old it's been doing it since the universe was in its infancy.

A team of astronomers have discovered a dust-filled massive galaxy that's essentially an ancient star factory, churning out stars since the universe was only 880 million years old.

The find is the earliest starburst galaxy ever observed, according to a release by California Institute of Technology, which had several of its astronomers on the team who made the discovery.

Starburst galaxies became prevalent after the Big Bang, when smaller galaxies cannibalized each other to form larger galaxies, some of them then going on to accumulate enough gas and dust to become prolific star factories.

The newly spotted galaxy is about the size of our own Milky Way but produces stars at a rate 2,000 times greater than the Milky Way.

Generating the mass equivalent of 2,900 suns per year, the starburst galaxy is so prodigious that some have labeled it a "maximum-starburst galaxy," according to the Caltech release. Such prolific star-making is among the highest observed rates of star production in the universe, and if similar galaxies are discovered it could seriously challenge current theories of galaxy formation.

"Massive, intense starburst galaxies are expected to only appear at later cosmic times," says Dominik Riechers, who led the research while a senior research fellow at Caltech. "Yet, we have discovered this colossal starburst just 880 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was at little more than 6 percent of its current age. Now an assistant professor at Cornell,

Riechers is the first author of the paper, which describes the findings in the April 18 issue of the journal Nature.

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