Early galaxies: live large, die big, burn bright

How did the biggest galaxies form? Based on the ages of stars inhabiting them, the largest elliptical galaxies — those kind of boring egg-shaped clouds of stars with no pretty spiral arms — formed fairly early in the history of the Universe. While smaller elliptical galaxies likely are the modern version of submillimeter bright galaxies (SBGs), star-forming structures visible from the early cosmos, astronomers have failed to identify the progenitors of the largest galaxies. However, a new paper might have the answer: the authors caught a pair of early galaxies right before they collided, after which they likely merged into one.

Where one galaxy is insufficient, two may do instead. A new set of observations caught two bright elliptical galaxies right before the act of merging into one that would have a combined mass large enough to make the equivalent of 400 billion Suns. Hai Fu and colleagues determined that these galaxies collided more than 10 billion years ago and that the merger was driving extremely rapid star formation, at least ten times the rate seen in ordinary galaxies. Based on these observations, the researchers concluded that such collisions could be responsible for the birth of the largest galaxies, allowing for most of them to finish forming by 9.5 billion years ago. [Read more…]