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'Sparky' the Star Factory Hints at Secrets of Galactic Evolution

Sep 01, 2014 03:11 PM EDT

Astronomers using a combination of land and space telescopes believe they have, for the first time, identified a "building site" for galaxy construction, with millions of newborn stars blazing into existence.

This space factory, dubbed "Sparky" by involved researchers, was identified in combined efforts between NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory.

Sparky was actually in existence a mere 3 billion years after astronomers believe the Big Bang jump-started the Universe, but since it's 11 billion light-years away, we are just now seeing this incredibly important and ancient galaxy construction.

Interestingly, initial observations have already revealed that Sparky is incredibly small - only about one-seventeenth the size of our Milky Way galaxy (100,000 light-years across), but containing about twice as many stars.

Erica Nelson of Yale University, the lead author of a study detailing these findings, explained in a recent statement how that's uniquely dense, and not something we are likely to see today.

"We suspect that this core-formation process is a phenomenon unique to the early universe because the early universe, as a whole, was more compact," she said. "Today, the Universe is so diffuse that it cannot create such objects anymore."

Archived observations by a number of far-infrared telescopes showed that Sparky was a busy galactic factory, pumping out roughly 300 stars a year. The Milky Way, by comparison, only produces 10 stars annually.

"It's like a medieval cauldron forging stars," Nelson said. "There's a lot of turbulence, and it's bubbling. If you were in there, the night sky would be bright with young stars, and there would be a lot of dust, gas, and remnants of exploding stars."

"To actually see this happening is fascinating," she added.

According to the astronomer's study, which was published in the journal Nature, Sparky's frenzied star-building was sparked by a torrent of gas flowing into the galaxy's core - earning the dense factory its name.

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