The Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri in New South Wales detected the raw material for making stars -- cold molecular hydrogen gas -- from when the universe was just 3 billion years old, less than a quarter of its current age, a release from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization said Monday.
"It is one of very few telescopes in the world that can do such difficult work, because it is both extremely sensitive and can receive radio waves of the right wavelengths," CSIRO astronomer Ron Ekers said.
The astronomers used the Compact Array to study a massive, distant grouping of star-forming "clumps" or "proto- galaxies" in the process of coming together as a single massive galaxy known as the Spiderweb, more than 10 thousand million light-years away.
The Spiderweb contains at least 60 thousand million times the mass of the Sun in molecular hydrogen gas, they said, fuel for the star-formation that has been seen across the Spiderweb.
"Indeed, it is enough to keep stars forming for at least another 40 million years," researcher Bjorn Emonts told China's Xinhua news agency.
The radio emissions detected by the Compact Array allow the astronomers to make an estimate of how rapidly the galaxy is forming stars.
"This opens the way to studying how these early galaxies make their first stars," the CSIRO release said.