The AzTEC-3 galaxy is 12.5 billion light-years away in the constellation Sextans, and it's not just huge and shockingly explosive — it's also a glimpse backward in time, to the early days of our universe. It was a tumultuous time when galaxy clusters were just beginning to form.

Our universe is full of galaxy clusters, where several galaxies orbit each other and exert gravitational effects on each other. But how did these clusters form? This image, based on radio data from AzTEC-3, shows us one of these clusters in the process of forming.

According to a release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory:

An international team of astronomers observed these remarkable objects with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

"The ALMA data reveal that AzTEC-3 is a very compact, highly disturbed galaxy that is bursting with new stars at close to its theoretically predicted maximum limit and is surrounded by a population of more normal, but also actively star-forming galaxies," said Dominik Riechers, an astronomer and assistant professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author on a paper published today (Nov. 10) in the Astrophysical Journal. "This particular grouping of galaxies represents an important milestone in the evolution of our Universe: the formation of a galaxy cluster and the early assemblage of large, mature galaxies."

In the early Universe, starburst galaxies like AzTEC-3 were forming new stars at a monstrous pace fueled by the enormous quantities of star-forming material they devoured and by merging with other adolescent galaxies. Over billions of years, these mergers continued, eventually producing the large galaxies and clusters of galaxies we see in the Universe today.

Evidence for this hierarchical model of galaxy evolution has been mounting, but these latest ALMA data show a strikingly clear picture of the all-important first steps along this process when the Universe was only 8 percent of its current age.

"One of the primary science goals of ALMA is the detection and detailed study of galaxies throughout cosmic time," said Chris Carilli, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico. "These new observations help us put the pieces together by showing the first steps of a galaxy merger in the early Universe."

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