The Sciences

The Puzzle of the Precocious Galaxies

Distant galaxies are older than we thought.

By Kathy A Svitil and Corey S PowellMay 29, 2004 5:00 AM


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The observations came as a shock—something like finding baby pictures of your father and seeing that he sported a mustache at age 2. When he examined galaxies in the distant early universe, astronomer Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto found they were far more mature than expected. “Stars are forming in some way that is inconsistent with our view of how they should be forming,” he says.

Abraham’s team used the huge Gemini North telescope in Hawaii to search for extremely remote, old-looking galaxies whose reddish glow would have been largely blotted out by Earth’s atmosphere. After 120 hours of observing, the researchers detected more than 300 distant galaxies. Based on the objects’ size and color, many of them formed just 1 billion years after the Big Bang, far sooner than current models predict.

Meanwhile, Povilas Palunas of the University of Texas at Austin and his colleagues have detected a huge clumping of galaxies at an even earlier era. Theorists believe that dark matter provided the gravitational tug that allowed such structures to arise, but nobody can explain how it did the job so rapidly. As Palunas puts it, “The universe is growing up faster than we thought.”

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