A team led by McGill researchers (also members of the CRAQ) has discovered, using the Herschel Space Observatory, a giant, galaxy-packed filament ablaze with billions of new stars. The filament connects two clusters of galaxies that, along with a third cluster, will smash together and give rise to one of the largest galaxy superclusters in the universe.
This discovery is a unique occasion to study the evolution of galaxies and cosmic structures. The filament is the first structure of its kind spied in a critical era of cosmic buildup when colossal collections of galaxies called superclusters began to take shape. The glowing galactic bridge offers astronomers a unique opportunity to explore how galaxies evolve and merge to form superclusters.
The intergalactic filament, containing hundreds of galaxies, spans 8 million light-years and links two of the three clusters that make up a supercluster known as RCS2319. This emerging supercluster is an exceptionally rare, distant object whose light has taken more than seven billion years to reach us.
RCS2319 is the subject of a huge observational study, led by Professor Tracy Webb and her group at McGill’s Department of Physics, including post-doctoral fellows Kristen Coppin and Jim Geach. Previous observations in visible and X-ray light had found the cluster cores and hinted at the presence of a filament. It was not until astronomers trained Herschel on the region, however, that the intense star-forming activity in the filament became clear. Dust obscures much of the star-formation activity in the early universe, but telescopes like Herschel can detect the infrared glow of this dust as it is heated by nascent stars.
The amount of infrared light suggests that the galaxies in the filament are cranking out the equivalent of about 1,000 solar masses (the mass of our sun) of new stars per year. For comparison’s sake, our Milky Way galaxy is producing about one solar mass-worth of new stars per year.
Researchers chalk up the blistering pace of star formation in the filament to the fact that galaxies within it are being crunched into a relatively small cosmic volume under the force of gravity.
Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
More information on Herschel is available at
Illustrations: A Star-Bursting Filament (in visible light on the left and infrared light on the right)
Credits: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/McGill University
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Olivier Hernandez, Ph.D.
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CRAQ – Université de Montréal
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