Predictions at fault over time of
massive galaxy formation
3 January 2011
The most massive galaxies may have formed billions of years earlier
than current scientific models predict, according to surprising new
"We have found a relatively large number of very massive, highly
luminous galaxies that existed almost 12 billion years ago when the
universe was still very young, about 1.5 billion years old. These
results appear to disagree with the latest predictions from models of
galaxy formation and evolution," said Danilo Marchesini, assistant
professor of physics and astronomy at the Tufts School of Arts and
"Current understanding of the physical processes responsible in
forming such massive galaxies has difficulty reproducing these
The newly identified galaxies were five to ten times more massive
than our own Milky Way. They were among a sample studied at redshift 3
to 4, when the universe was between 1.5 and 2 billion years old.
By complementing existing data with deep images obtained through a
new system of five customized near-infrared filters, the researchers
were able to get a more complete view of the galaxy population at this
early stage and more accurately characterize the sampled galaxies.
The massive galaxy circled above was formed when
the universe was
still young, according to surprising findings from
Tufts' Danilo Marchesini.
(Credit: Image courtesy of Tufts
Galaxies extremely active
The researchers made another surprising discovery: More than 80% of
these massive galaxies show very high infrared luminosities, which
indicate that these galaxies are extremely active and most likely in a
phase of intense growth. Massive galaxies in the local universe are
instead quiescent and do not form stars at all.
The researchers note that there are two likely causes of such
luminosity: New stars may be forming in dust-enshrouded bursts at rates
of a few thousand solar masses per year. This would be tens to several
hundreds of times greater than the rates estimated by spectral energy
distribution (SED) modelling. Alternatively, the high infrared
luminosity could be due to highly-obscured active galactic nuclei (AGN)
ferociously accreting matter onto rapidly growing super-massive black
holes at the galaxies' centres.
There might be an explanation that would at least partially reconcile
observations with model-predicted densities. The redshifts of these
massive galaxies, and hence their distances, were determined from the
SED modelling and have not yet been confirmed spectroscopically.
Redshift measurements from SED modelling are inherently less accurate
Such "systemic uncertainties" in the determination of the distances
of these galaxies might still allow for approximate agreement between
observations and model predictions.
If half of the massive galaxies are assumed to be slightly closer, at
redshift z=2.6, when the universe was a bit older (2.5 billion years
old) and very dusty (with dust absorbing much of the light emitted at
ultra-violet and optical wavelengths), then the disagreement between
observations and model predictions becomes only marginally significant.
However, the discovery of the existence of such massive, old and very
dusty galaxies at redshift z=2.6 would itself be a notable discovery.
Such a galaxy population has never before been observed.
it is clear that our understanding of how massive galaxies form is still
far from satisfactory," said Marchesini.
"The existence of these galaxies so early in the history of the
universe, as well as their properties, can provide very important clues
on how galaxies formed and evolved shortly after the Big Bang," he