APEX Snaps First Close-up of Star Factories in Distant Universe
21 March 2010
For the first time, astronomers have made direct measurements of the size and brightness of regions of star-birth in a very distant galaxy, thanks to a chance discovery with the APEX telescope. The galaxy is so distant, and its light has taken so long to reach us, that we see it as it was 10 billion years ago. A cosmic “gravitational lens” is magnifying the galaxy, giving us a close-up view that would otherwise be impossible. This lucky break reveals a hectic and vigorous star-forming life for galaxies in the early Universe, with stellar nurseries forming one hundred times faster than in more recent galaxies. The research is published online today in the journal Nature.
Astronomers were observing a massive galaxy cluster  with the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope, using submillimetre wavelengths of light, when they found a new and uniquely bright galaxy, more distant than the cluster and the brightest very distant galaxy ever seen at submillimetre wavelengths. It is so bright because the cosmic dust grains in the galaxy are glowing after being heated by starlight. The new galaxy has been given the name SMM J2135-0102.
“We were stunned to find a surprisingly bright object that wasn’t at the expected position. We soon realised it was a previously unknown and more distant galaxy being magnified by the closer galaxy cluster,” says Carlos De Breuck from ESO, a member of the team. De Breuck was making the observations at the APEX telescope on the plateau of Chajnantor at an altitude of 5000 m in the Chilean Andes.