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Biggest Star Party in the Universe

The following is a guest post from Anne Minard, an accomplished writer and fellow space geek. Anne writes for NatGeo News a bunch and has even written a whole book [and a good one, too] on poor demoted Pluto.

Like what you read? Check out more of Anne’s blogginess at 100 Days of Science.


—Left image courtesy Sloan Digital Sky Survey; center image courtesy National Radio Astronomy Observatory; right image courtesy Plateau de Bure Interferometer

A massive galaxy at the edge of the known universe harbors the largest and most intense star factory astronomers have ever seen.

And it sounds like an incredible setting for a Wii space flight game.

Fabian Walter, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, led a research team that glimpsed the galaxy, whimsically named SDSS J1148+5251, with the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in France. Their results are out in this week’s issue of Nature.

The galaxy formed before the universe was a billion years old, and it was apparently a hotbed of star production. Whereas the Milky Way yields up to a few solar masses of new stars per year, the new galaxy was churning out 3,000.

The star-fest is about 12.8 billion light-years away. Close up, it would be a fantastic show.

“Imagine if we were stuck in the middle of Orion,” said Chris Carilli, a study co-author and an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico. “There would be lots of action: stars being formed, dense gas, supernovae going off.”

The study authors say stars are forming as quickly in the nearby galaxy Arp 220, but the newly discovered hyper-starburst is at least 50 times bigger.

The researchers think the new galaxy will end up about a hundred times more massive than the Milky Way. Milky Way-sized galaxies are expected to greatly outnumber massive ones, but current telescopes are only powerful enough to glimpse the distant giants.

The James Webb Space Telescope can lend a set of eyes in the short term. And within a few years, the real heavy hitter, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, will come online to help.

That observatory was fitted with its first of 50 antennae in December and is expected to be operational by 2012.

[VJ sayz: the Atacama array, btw, is abbreviated ALMA, which coincidentally means “soul” in Spanish. Who says scientists ain’t got no poetry?]