Astronomers Discover Oldest Spiral Galaxy with Hubble Telescope

By Sangeeta Mukherjee , Jul 19, 2012 08:43 AM EDT

Astronomers, using the Hubble Space Telescope, have found out the universe's most ancient spiral galaxy that dates back almost 10.7 billion years.

The study reported in Journal Nature provides a new angle into galaxy formation. The three-armed ancient spiral galaxy, named Q2343-BX442, was discovered in the direction of the Pegasus constellation while researchers from University of Toronto tried to snap photos and study the properties of 300 distant galaxies using the Hubble Space Telescope.

"Our first thought was that we must have the wrong distance for the galaxy," lead researcher David Law, with the University of Toronto, told Discovery News.

"Then we thought perhaps it was the human brain playing tricks on us. If you look at enough blobby, weird-looking galaxies sooner or later, like a Rorschach blob test, you start to pick out patterns whether or not they're there," Law said.

"As you go back in time to the early universe, galaxies look really strange, clumpy and irregular, not symmetric," Alice Shapley, a UCLA associate professor of physics and astronomy and the study co-author said. "The vast majority of old galaxies look like train wrecks. Our first thought was, why is this one so different, and so beautiful?"

"The discovery is extremely rare, in fact it's the earliest grand design spiral ever seen," Shapley said. She further adds that "Grand design spirals, galaxies with well defined spiral arms such as the Milky Way, are relatively common in the local universe today. But we didn't think the conditions of the early universe would have allowed their formation."

To confirm the existence and location of the spiral galaxy, researchers then employed the Keck II telescope in Hawaii. The Keck telescope studied light emitting from more than 3,600 locations in and around the Milky Way and finally, confirmed that the spiral galaxy is indeed a reality.

The study also discovered a neighboring dwarf galaxy near BX442 and according to scientists, the gravitational interaction between the two galaxies can be a reason behind the spiral formation of the BX442. The neighboring galaxy might eventually merge with BX442 , researchers believe.

Astronomers will continue studying BX442 to get more insights about the formation of spiral galaxies like our Milky Way.

"BX442 represents a link between early galaxies that are much more turbulent and the rotating spiral galaxies that we see around us," Shapley said. "Indeed, this galaxy may highlight the importance of merger interactions at any cosmic epoch in creating grand design spiral structure."

BX442's light took almost 10.7 billion years or 3 billion years after the Big Bang that created the universe to reach our planet.

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