Astronomical experts have found that the formation of early universe galaxies was fueled by the buildup of gas from their surrounding environment. Computer simulations had predicted the presence of cosmic streams of gas that flowed into far-off galaxies, providing nourishment. Recent observations made by the ALMA astronomical observatory, located in the Atacama desert of Chile, have unveiled the existence of a long, extended stream of gas flowing towards a remote galaxy, providing the necessary raw materials for the creation of billions of new stars.
This groundbreaking discovery was made by a group of scholars from the Center for Astrobiology and the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, both based in Spain. The Anthill Galaxy, also known as 4C 41.17 due to its conglomerate of small galaxies that will eventually merge, is the recipient of this current, a distant galaxy whose light shone approximately 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. The galaxy’s distance from Earth allows us to observe its ancient stages, giving us insight into the history of the universe.
The ALMA observations indicate that the cosmic current is a conduit of cold gas enriched with carbon atoms, akin to rivers that flow into the ocean carrying nutrient-rich sediments. The current contains the raw materials necessary for the formation of new stars. Bjorn Emonts, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory of the United States and lead author of the research, notes the significance of this discovery, stating that “this gas constitutes the raw material from which new stars will form.”
The influx of gas has enabled the galaxy to form hundreds of new stars each year, comparable to the rate of star formation previously observed in El Hormiguero. Montserrat Villar-Martín, a researcher at the Center for Astrobiology involved in the study, believes that the cosmic current is the primary source of raw materials required for the growth of the El Hormiguero Galaxy.
Furthermore, the current has the potential to assist the Anthill in becoming a massive galaxy, while the lack of gas supply would result in the formation of a barren galaxy populated by only the stars that had already formed, a relatively brief period in cosmic timescales of about 500 million years.
A possible large-scale supply
The scientific team suspects that the current comes from what is known as the cosmic web, that is, the network-like structure of interconnected filaments of gas, galaxies and dark matter that extends throughout the universe. “The cosmic current that we have detected covers almost half a million light-years, which is equivalent to about five times the size of our galaxy, the Milky Way,” says Miguel Pérez Torres, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia who is participating in the study. finding-. But it is a small structure compared to the vast scale of the cosmic web. If the two are connected, that would mean that the Anthill Galaxy is not being built in isolation, but rather has a supply pipeline tied to large-scale gas storage throughout the universe.”
Clusters of galaxies embedded in the cosmic web of baryonic and dark matter that is thought to permeate the universe. (Image: ESA)
The cosmic web is postulated to consist predominantly of hydrogen and helium, the fundamental elements that were generated during the momentous event known as the Big Bang. The unexpected abundance of carbon within the stream is remarkable since this element, among others, is only formed within the fiery furnaces of stars. The presence of carbon suggests that the stream is transporting diminutive galaxies, as simulations predict: the stars in these minuscule galaxies augment the stream with carbon and other fundamental constituents prior to reaching the Anthill.
The scientific collective aspires that prospective ALMA observations will disclose whether carbon-rich cosmic streams are interrelated to other faraway anthills, in a cosmic network of supply routes that would facilitate the construction of galaxies.
The study is titled “A cosmic stream of atomic carbon gas connected to a massive radio galaxy at redshift 3.8”. And it has been published in the academic journal Science. (Source: Silbia López de Lacalle / IAA / CSIC / CAB)