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ALMA Captures Star Formation in Distant Universe

Jun 08, 2015 05:05 PM EDT

ALMA has captured the most detailed images of star formation ever in the distant Universe, providing scientists a unique look at how these balls of gas and dust are created.

Scientists at the ALMA Observatory in the Atacama desert in Chile took advantage of an astronomical effect known as gravitational lensing to gain the close-up view. In particular, they used the gravitational field of another closer galaxy to warp the more distant galaxy's light, much like the lens of a telescope.

After analyzing data collected by ALMA's Long Baseline Campaign, the images revealed never-before-seen structures within the distant galaxy, known as SDP.81, nearly 12 billion light-years away. The new observations are far more detailed than any previously made of such a distant galaxy, including even those made using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Specifically, thanks to ALMA's array of synchronized antennas, it has captured images of SDP.81 with a resolution up to 6 times higher than those taken by Hubble. Thus, revealing details about the galaxy's structure, contents, motion, and other physical characteristics.

By correcting for the distortion created by the gravitational lens effect, the researchers were able to produce images so sharp that clumps of stars forming in the galaxy can be seen. These clumps are believed to be around 200 light-years across - giant versions of the Orion Nebula producing thousands more stars on the far side of the Universe.

According to the researchers, this is the first time this phenomenon has been seen at such enormous distances.

"The reconstructed ALMA image of the galaxy is spectacular," Rob Ivison, co-author of two of the papers and Director for Science at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), said in a news release. "ALMA's huge collecting area, the large separation of its antennas, and the stable atmosphere above the Atacama desert all lead to exquisite detail in both images and spectra. That means that we get very sensitive observations, as well as information about how the different parts of the galaxy are moving. We can study galaxies at the other end of the Universe as they merge and create huge numbers of stars."

Using information gathered by ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array), the research team also measured how the distant galaxy rotates, and estimated its mass. Their calculations showed that the gas in this galaxy is unstable. Clumps of it are collapsing inwards, and will likely turn into new giant star-forming regions in the future.

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