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ALMA detects rotating infant galaxy with assist from gravitational lens

ALMA detects rotating infant galaxy with assist from gravitational lens
The galaxy cluster RXCJ0600-2007, seen in an image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and combined with gravitational lensing images of the distant galaxy RXCJ0600-z6, is shown 12.4 billion light-years away -- about 900 million years after the Big Bang. Photo by ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Fujimoto et al./NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

April 22 (UPI) -- One of the world's most powerful radio telescopes, Chile's Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, has identified a rotating infant galaxy in the distant universe -- with the help of a gravitational lens.

According to astronomers, the newly discovered galaxy -- described Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal -- is a "normal galaxy," a model of the cosmos' first generation of galaxies.

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"Many of the galaxies that existed in the early universe were so small that their brightness is well below the limit of the current largest telescopes on Earth and in space, making difficult to study their properties and internal structure," study co-author Nicolas Laporte said in a press release.

"However, the light coming from the galaxy named RXCJ0600-z6, was highly magnified by gravitational lensing, making it an ideal target for studying the properties and structure of a typical baby galaxies," said Laporte, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge.

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A gravitational lens, or gravitational lensing, is a phenomenon whereby the gravity of a closer galaxy bends the light of a more distant galaxy, creating a magnifying lens-like effect.

The phenomenon is often used to study galaxies that would otherwise be too far away to see, which is most of the galaxies in the distant universe.

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The ALMA Lensing Cluster Survey, ALCS, is an effort to locate distant galaxies enlarged by gravitational lensing.

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Cosmic models predict that most of the first generation of galaxies were rather small and slow-growing, but not surprisingly, scientists have mostly been able to find and study rather large distant galaxies.

To truly understand how the universe's earliest galaxies formed and developed, astronomers need to study more galaxies like RXCJ0600-z6.

The breakthrough discovery began with the discovery of RXCJ0600-2007, a whopper of a galaxy cluster with a mass 1,000 trillion times that of the sun. Astronomers determined the cluster's gravity was magnifying the light from a single faraway galaxy.

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Using data captured by the Chile's Gemini Observatory, researchers estimated the light being magnified by RXCJ0600-2007 was at least 12.9 billion years old. This means that astronomers were looking at a galaxy as it existed when the universe was just 900 million years old.

Using sophisticated imaging analysis techniques, researchers were able to reverse engineer the gravitational lensing effect, yielding a more precise picture of the faraway baby galaxy.

According to the analysis, RXCJ0600-z6 boasted a mass of just 2 to 3 billion times that of the sun -- making it roughly 1/100th of the size of the Milky Way Galaxy.

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More surprising than the infant galaxy's size was the movement of its gas. Models predict the gas inside the earliest galaxies moved chaotically, but the data showed the gas inside RXCJ0600-z6 was rotating rather uniformly.

"Our study demonstrates, for the first time, that we can directly measure the internal motion of such faint -- less massive -- galaxies in the early Universe and compare it with the theoretical predictions," said co-author Kotaro Kohno, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the leader of the ALCS team.

According to Seiji Fujimoto, co-author on the study, the galaxy has been selected among hundreds of others for study by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to be launched later this year.

"The fact that RXCJ0600-z6 has a very high magnification factor also raises expectations for future research," said Fujimoto, a research fellow at the Niels Bohr Institute.

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