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Big Island Observatory Part of Team to Discover Massive Cluster of Young Galaxies

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An observatory atop Maunakea on the Big Island played a part in the discovery by an international team of astronomers that discovered a massive cluster of young galaxies forming in the early universe.

With the help of W.M. Keck Observatory, the team led by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, found that the newly discovered growing galactic metropolis, named MAGAZ3NE J095924+022537, is a newborn galaxy cluster, or protocluster, consisting of at least 38 member galaxies, and is about 11.8 billion light-years away from Earth.

Four of the 38 galaxies in the protocluster MAGAZ3NE J095924+022537 that were imaged using Keck Observatory’s MOSFIRE instrument. (Credit: I. McConachie, G. Wilson/UC Riverside)

“We are seeing this protocluster as it appeared when the universe was less than 2 billion years old,” said one of the paper’s co-authors, Gillian Wilson, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCR, in a press release from Keck. “It is as if you took a cluster like Coma, the nearest rich cluster of galaxies to Earth, and plopped it into the early universe.”

According to the press release, galaxy clusters grow through time under gravity and, in the present day universe, can contain hundreds or even thousands of galaxies, as well as hot gas and dark matter. As time goes by, their galaxies burn through the fuel available and evolve from vigorously star-forming galaxies into red and dead galaxies.


“In the early universe, all protoclusters discovered until now are full of vigorously star-forming galaxies,” said Ian McConachie, a graduate student in the UCR Department of Physics and Astronomy and lead author of the research paper published in The Astrophysical Journal. “But incredibly, unlike all of the other protoclusters that have been found at this epoch, many galaxies in MAGAZ3NE J0959 appear to have already stopped forming stars.”

“We were surprised to find a galaxy graveyard in such a young cluster,” said another of the paper’s co-authors, Percy Gomez, a staff astronomer at Keck Observatory who worked with and mentored McConachie during his time as a Keck Visiting Scholar. “Now the question is, what did these galaxies look like before? A new search is on.”

Wilson, in whose lab McConachie works, said J0959 was discovered from the “Massive Ancient Galaxies At Z > 3 NEar-infrared,” or MAGAZ3NE, survey, which was designed to discover and study ultramassive galaxies and their neighbors.


Paper co-author Benjamin Forrest, a former postdoctoral researcher in Wilson’s lab who is now based at UC Davis, explained that at the heart of MAGAZ3NE J0959 is an ultramassive galaxy that has already formed a mass of more than 200 billion suns.

“Why this ultramassive galaxy and so many of its neighbors formed most of their stars and then became inactive when the universe was still so young, in contrast to other known protoclusters from the same time, is a big mystery,” he said. “Why its galaxies are so unlike those in all the other known protoclusters, and so similar to those in Coma, is a complete mystery.”

Forrest added that MAGAZ3NE J0959 was discovered from the ground, but the advent of powerful new capabilities, such as the recently-launched James Webb Space Telescope, should soon reveal whether there are other protoclusters like MAGAZ3NE J0959 packed with dead galaxies waiting to be found in the early universe.


“Should such protoclusters be found in large numbers, it would mean that the current paradigm of protocluster formation would require a major revision,” Forrest said. “A new scenario of protoclusters existing in a diversity of states in the early universe would have to be adopted. With many member galaxies quenching in the first 2 billion years, this would almost certainly pose significant challenges for current models of galaxy simulation.”

The team used spectroscopic observations from Keck’s Multi-Object Spectrograph for Infrared Exploration, or MOSFIRE, to make detailed measurements of MAGAZ3NE J0959 and precisely quantify its distances.

Closely associated to the question of how ultramassive galaxies form is the question of the environment in which they form, for example, are they always found in overdense environments such as protoclusters, or can they also form in isolation? Next, the team plans to study the neighborhood of all other ultramassive galaxies in the MAGAZ3NE survey to find the answer.

The study was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

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