Astronomers from the University of Arizona have accidentally discovered a “hidden monster galaxy” from the dawn of the universe which is creating stars at at a rate 100 times faster than our own.
The footprints of such galaxies had previously hinted at their existence “like a cosmic Yeti” according to the University of Arizona, which said “the scientific community generally regarded these galaxies as folklore”.
But a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal confirms the existence of at least one such galaxy which was discovered by astronomer Dr Christina Williams using telescopes in the Atacama desert.
Dr Williams, lead author of the study, noticed a faint blob of light in observations captured by the ALMA telescope – short for Atacama Large Millimetre Array – which scans the skies at 5,000m above sea level in the high altitude and clear, cloudless skies of the desert in northern Chile.
“Strangely enough, the shimmering seemed to be coming out of nowhere, like a ghostly footstep in a vast dark wilderness,” said the university.
“It was very mysterious because the light seemed not to be linked to any known galaxy at all,” explained Dr Williams, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Steward Observatory.
“When I saw this galaxy was invisible at any other wavelength, I got really excited because it meant that it was probably really far away and hidden by clouds of dust.”
The bizarre signal is believed to have travelled roughly 12.5 billion lightyears to reach Earth, such a distance and time away that it offers scientists a view of the universe in its infancy.
The astronomers believe it was caused by the warm glow of dust particles heated by stars forming deep inside a young galaxy, with these giant clouds of dust concealing the light of the stars themselves, rendering the galaxy completely invisible.
According to study co-author Ivo Labbe, of the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, said: “We figured out that the galaxy is actually a massive monster galaxy with as many stars as our Milky Way, but brimming with activity, forming new stars at 100 times the rate of our own galaxy.”
The accidental discovery could solve an important astronomical question, about how the biggest galaxies developed during the young universe.
Scientists believe that massive mature galaxies can only be seen from when the universe was effectively a cosmic toddler, 10% of its current age – but bafflingly astronomers never seem to be able to spot them forming, even when looking at a part of the universe which is so distant it comes from that time.
“Our hidden monster galaxy has precisely the right ingredients to be that missing link,” Dr Williams explained, “because they are probably a lot more common.”
But another open question is exactly how many of them there are.
“The observations for the current study were made in a tiny part of the sky, less than 1% the disc of the full moon.
“Like the Yeti, finding footprints of the mythical creature in a tiny strip of wilderness would either be a sign of incredible luck or a sign that monsters are literally lurking everywhere,” the university stated.