New Image of the Deep Universe Reveals Its Star Formation History

Galaxies across the Universe have been birthing stars for the last 13 billion years or so. However, the majority of stars took shape and formed between 8 and 11 billion years ago, during a period known as ‘cosmic noon.’

Now, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (SARAO) MeerKAT telescope is the perfect way to dig deep into the background of the Universe. The instrument has captured a new radio image that provides us with a never-seen-before look at distant galaxies similar to our Milky Way.

The image delivered by the telescope resembles a pool of glitter on a black background, but every light point portrays a galaxy. The most radiant are galaxies hosting supermassive black holes.

“But what makes this image special are the numerous faint dots filling the sky. These are distant galaxies like our own that have never been observed in radio light before,” said SARAO in a statement Tuesday. ​

It has been a difficult task for astronomers to analyze the dim light coming from this period. Optical telescopes can observe very distant galaxies, but relatively new stars are hugely hidden inside pulverulent clouds of gas. Radio telescopes can see through the dust and capture unusual bright starburst galaxies that are the cause behind the majority of formations of stars in the Universe.

Capturing Star Formation With a Time Machine

The image released by SARAO depicts tens of thousands of galaxies. The team of researchers who worked on this particular project are analyzing the period of the Universe known as cosmic noon, which, as mentioned above, occurred between 8 to 11 billion years ago. That was perhaps the most active time for star formation, but it’s been incredibly difficult to see past all the cosmic commotion in order to capture the bountiful star-creating galaxy.

“Because radio waves travel at the speed of light, this image is a time machine that samples star formation in these distant galaxies over billions of years,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory astronomer James Condon. He’s also a co-author of a paper on the MeerKAT observations that was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

MeerKAT had only been launched in 2016, so this impressive capture of the deep Universe is only the beginning of what astronomers might discover as they peek into the cosmic distance.

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