Amazing details of star-forming galaxy captured by ALMA

This amazing photo, captured by ALMA, depicts a distant galaxy in the process of rapid star formation in breathtaking detail.
By Aaron Sims | Jun 09, 2015
A team of astronomers has made an unprecedented discovery using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) with the help of a 'natural telescope' deep in outer space. According to a EurekAlert press release, the gravitational lens, formed by a galaxy with a supermassive black hole at the center, has revealed a giant stellar nursery in crystal-clear detail.

During tests in October 2014, ALMA snapped a shot of enormous galaxy SDP.81, which was nearly 11.7 billion light-years from the Earth. Located in the constellation Hydra, the image of the galaxy was distorted by a gravitational lens, created by the mass of another giant galaxy in the foreground. The galaxy distorting the image of SDP.81 had a bonus black hole in its center, indicating its great mass.

The image of SDP.81 is distorted by the foreground galaxy because of its mass. To understand why this happens, we must look to Einstein's theory of gravitational relativity. The theory states that a massive object can 'bend' space and time, causing light to travel around a warped path. Light coming from SDP.81 is bent into a circle, creating what astronomers have aptly named an "Einstein ring."

Astronomers were able to correct the distortion caused by the black hole and galaxy in the foreground, not unlike how glasses improve vision in a distorted eyeball. The corrected image still showed highly concentrated light from the lens, allowing scientists an unprecedented look at how stars form in these violent, distant galaxies.

The researchers discovered that SDP.81 is creating stars at a rate that could be thousands of times faster than our own Milky Way. As these astronomers tweak and fine-tune the ALMA telescope, they hope to learn more about the way stars form in distant galaxies, and how other objects can distort images before they make it to Earth. The results were published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan this morning.

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