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COSMOS AzTEK3 is the oldest known cluster of galaxies in the universe and is home to a nurturing, yet destructive supermassive black hole.  (Source: Subaru/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The light traveling from there most certainly came from a "long time ago"

No matter what the scientific discipline, extremes are always an attractive topic.  No one remembers the third or fourth coldest recorded temperature in history, they remember the coldest (~184 K, recorded at the Russian Vostok Station in Antarctica on July 21, 1983).  Likewise, while astronomers' slow journey of discovering galaxies proceeds largely thanklessly and without recognition, the recent discovery of the farthest away known galaxies is attracting significant attention.

It took ultra-powerful multi-wavelength telescopes, including NASA's Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble space telescopes, and the ground-based W.M. Keck Observatory and Japan's Subaru Telescope, to spot the far, far away cluster of galaxies.  The cluster is approximately 12.6 billion light years from Earth. 

Given that the universe itself is estimated to be only 13.7 billion years old, that means that we're viewing light from a galaxy that appeared just a billion years after the Big Bang (to put things in context, it took modern life as we know it about a billion years to evolve from simpler multi-cellular organisms).

Scientists have dubbed the new cluster COSMOS-AzTEC3.  Located in the constellation Sextans, it is not only the oldest known "protocluster" (a clump of early galaxies), but it's also one of the biggest.  The previous record holder in age belonged to a protocluster 10 billion light years away.

COSMOS-AzTEC3 is a buzzing bed of cosmic activity.  Stars are being born and a supermassive black hole is sucking in matter and emitting radiation.

It's fascinating for the scientists to conjecture what has become of the proto-cluster.  After all, over 12 billion years have passed since the photonic post card we have received -- by now some of the galaxies may look a lot like ours.

States [press release] Peter Capak of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, "We think the starbursts and black holes are the seeds of the cluster.  These seeds will eventually grow into a giant, central galaxy that will dominate the cluster -- a trait found in modern-day galaxy clusters."

To find the protocluster the Chandra x-ray telescope scanned for super-massive black holes, the kind that give off radiation, which disrupts clouds of gases and leads to star (and galaxy) formation.  Once the cluster was located, it was up to Hubble and the ground-based Keck and Subaru telescopes to verify the age of the cluster.  Spitzer was used to estimate the cluster's mass, which turned out to be an incredible 400 billion suns (minimum).  The cluster's black hole had a mass of 30 million suns, alone.

The latest insight into this unusual cosmic resident comes from the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique's interferometer telescope in France and 30-meter (about 100-foot) telescope in Spain, which measured the amount of gas (or "star fuel") that was contained in the cluster.  The National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico also chipped in for these measurements.  The results showed that the protocluster was a healthy growing set of galaxies and likely would mature into a full-grown series of galaxies similar to our own galaxy.

Perhaps there's life orbiting a distant star in the modern version of those galaxies looking out at the Earth and discovering our galaxy's protocluster for the first time, as well.

The study on this work was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature [abstract].  The first author is Professor Capak.




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