Across the Universe, the stars cry out

Contributed by
Dec 17, 2010
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A few years back, astronomers discovered that some distant galaxies were blasting out vast amounts of infrared light, but were very faint in visible light, the kind we see. They termed these objects ULIRGs ("you-lurgs"), for Ultra Luminous Infrared Galaxies. The idea is that these galaxies are forming lots of stars, but there was so much dust choking the region that all the visible light was blocked. However, infrared light can pierce through the dust, so telescopes that detect IR can see them. Due to the physics of the situation, astronomers also figured there must be two populations of these galaxies; the ones they had found, and another that was (very) slightly warmer.

Well, they finally found some from that second group:

spire_ULIRGS

I know, they don't look like much, do they? But you have to realize what you're seeing here: those circled blobs of light are entire galaxies, with billions of stars, and they're a staggering 11 billion light years away.

That's really, really far. The Universe is only 13.7 billion years old, so we're seeing these galaxies as they were just a few billion years after the entire Universe came into being. Not only that, but the amount of infrared light these galaxies are emitting is truly terrifying: in the infrared alone, they are blasting out a solid trillion times the Sun's entire energy output.

A trillion! 1,000,000,000,000! That's a whole lot of energy. And it comes from a whole lot of newborn stars, because these galaxies are cranking out stars at a rate 700 times that of our own Milky Way galaxy! The view inside those galaxies must be breathtaking; imagine being surrounded by the Orion Nebula everywhere you look. Wow.

SWIRE_LockmansurveyWhat cracks me up about this too, is how they found them. The European Space Agency is using the orbiting Herschel Infrared Observatory to take a survey of galaxies in the IR. It's finding a lot of them; in the picture above every dot you see is an infrared source, most likely a galaxy. And that's a small section of the sky; on the right is an image of a bigger part of the survey. You need to click it and see it full-res to get a sense of how many freaking galaxies there are out there!

As far as astronomical discoveries go, this is another in a long series of steps needed to understand the Universe. I know that in your daily life this may not affect you much; you have other things on your mind, daily stresses and such. But you know what? While I go about my everyday business, in my mind I'm occupied by all the mundane and gross worries of life just like you are, just like everyone else is. But somewhere back there, in some part of my brain, there is knowledge that sits there... and every now and again, it makes itself known.

We can see galaxies a hundred billion trillion kilometers away! We know that stars are being born there, stars like the Sun, and they're being born every day! If you were there, the sky would be a riot of red and green gas strewn in sheets and ribbons and shock waves and festooned with brilliant jewel-like stars everywhere you looked!

Those wonders are out there, and they're real. That makes my life better, just knowing that.

Image credit: ESA/SPIRE/HerMES


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- Herschel opens its eye
- Herschel eyes the infrared Southern Cross
- Chaos! Turbulence! Blowouts! Herschel!
- Record-breaking galaxy found at the edge of the Universe