What Will This Monster Galaxy Teach Us About Our Own?

An artist’s impression of AzTEC-1
Illustration: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

When talking  about timelines in space, they’re things forming and falling apart over millions or billions of years. Our Sun is nearly five billion years old and will probably last for another five billion before it starts to fade.

The average star takes almost 10 million years to form, depending on the available mass in the surrounding area, which is why this new monster galaxy is so exciting for astronomers. Why is COSMOS-AzTEC-1 so different from our own galaxy, and what can it teach us about our interstellar home?

Introducing COSMOS-AzTEC-1

This monster galaxy, which astronomers call COSMOS-AzTEC-1, is 12.4 million light years away from our home galaxy. It’s also called a starburst galaxy because the gas and dust clouds are so dense that this distant galaxy is forming stars up to 100 times faster than they form in other galaxies. If you take the standard star formation of 10 million years, that means this galaxy is forming new stars in roughly 10,000 years. That’s less than a heartbeat, in cosmic terms. 10,000 year is nothing if you’ve got billions of years ahead of you.

This is still much longer than the standard human lifespan, but it is an exciting discovery nonetheless.

Researchers believe these massive starburst galaxies are the ancestors of the elliptical galaxies, some of which can be more than a million light years in diameter. Why is this such an important discovery?

How Stars Are Born and How They Die

Our home galaxy is roughly 13.5 billion years old — we nearly date back to the Big Bang, which is theorized to have occurred approximately 13.7 billion years ago. In interstellar terms, COSMOS-AzTEC-1 like our galaxy’s younger sibling, initially forming roughly 13.5 billion years ago. Being able to look back into the past like this can teach astronomers and astrophysicists a lot, including how our own galaxy was formed and how stars are born within those galaxies.

What’s really fascinating isn’t just the speed at which this galaxy is creating new stars — it’s the fact that it has amassed such a massive storehouse of the gasses and dust necessary for star creation. It’s also estimated that all the gas that has been collected will be consumed in just 100 million years. This is more than 10 times the speed of other star-forming galaxies. Even older galaxies like our own are still forming stars.

Unstable Galaxies

The starburst galaxy is extremely unstable. Most galaxies of this type have a defined center where the majority of the dust and gas that is necessary for star formation stays. AzTEC has two completely separate gas clouds that orbit the center of the galaxy, making it less stable than other previously observed starburst galaxies.

Scientists aren’t sure why this starburst is manifesting differently than others that we’ve seen before. It could be because of a collision between this galaxy and another that we haven’t observed yet, but there is currently no evidence to suggest a galactic collision caused this unique configuration. The gravity pressure of this galaxy is weaker than some of the other similar starburst galaxies, which could be contributing to the unbalanced star clouds.

While we still don’t understand our own galaxy as well as we would like to, being able to observe the fast-forwarded star formation in COSMOS-AzTEC-1 gives us a unique opportunity to see how stars are formed in close to real time — instead of waiting 10 million years for one in our own galaxy to form. It might be 12.4 million light years away, but it could put us just a little bit closer to understanding our own galaxy.

Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Associate Editor of Astro Space News
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