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21 September 2016
Computer simulation of a Lyman-alpha Blob
An international team using ALMA, along with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and other telescopes, has discovered the true nature of a rare object in the distant Universe called a Lyman-alpha Blob. Up to now astronomers did not understand what made these huge clouds of gas shine so brightly, but ALMA has now seen two galaxies at the heart of one of these objects and they are undergoing a frenzy of star formation that is lighting up their surroundings. These large galaxies are in turn at the centre of a swarm of smaller ones in what appears to be an early phase in the formation of a massive cluster of galaxies. The two ALMA sources are expected to evolve into a single giant elliptical galaxy.
Lyman-alpha Blobs (LABs) are gigantic clouds of hydrogen gas that can span hundreds of thousands of light-years and are found at very large cosmic distances. The name reflects the characteristic wavelength of ultraviolet light that they emit, known as Lyman-alpha radiation . Since their discovery, the processes that give rise to LABs have been an astronomical puzzle. But new observations with ALMA may now have now cleared up the mystery.
Infographic explaining how a Lyman-alpha Blob functions
One of the largest Lyman-alpha Blobs known, and the most thoroughly studied, is SSA22-Lyman-alpha blob 1, or LAB-1. Embedded in the core of a huge cluster of galaxies in the early stages of formation, it was the very first such object to be discovered — in 2000 — and is located so far away that its light has taken about 11.5 billion years to reach us.
A team of astronomers, led by Jim Geach, from the Centre for Astrophysics Research of the University of Hertfordshire, UK, has now used the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) unparallelled ability to observe light from cool dust clouds in distant galaxies to peer deeply into LAB-1. This allowed them to pinpoint and resolve several sources of submillimetre emission .
Giant space blob glows from within
They then combined the ALMA images with observations from the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), which map the Lyman-alpha light. This showed that the ALMA sources are located in the very heart of the Lyman-alpha Blob, where they are forming stars at a rate over 100 times that of the Milky Way.
Deep imaging with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and spectroscopy at the W. M. Keck Observatory  showed in addition that the ALMA sources are surrounded by numerous faint companion galaxies that could be bombarding the central ALMA sources with material, helping to drive their high star formation rates.
Closing in on a giant space blob
The team then turned to a sophisticated simulation of galaxy formation to demonstrate that the giant glowing cloud of Lyman-alpha emission can be explained if ultraviolet light produced by star formation in the ALMA sources scatters off the surrounding hydrogen gas. This would give rise to the Lyman-alpha Blob we see.
Jim Geach, lead author of the new study, explains: “Think of a streetlight on a foggy night — you see the diffuse glow because light is scattering off the tiny water droplets. A similar thing is happening here, except the streetlight is an intensely star-forming galaxy and the fog is a huge cloud of intergalactic gas. The galaxies are illuminating their surroundings.”
Wide-field view of the sky around a giant space blob
Understanding how galaxies form and evolve is a massive challenge. Astronomers think Lyman-alpha Blobs are important because they seem to be the places where the most massive galaxies in the Universe form. In particular, the extended Lyman-alpha glow provides information on what is happening in the primordial gas clouds surrounding young galaxies, a region that is very difficult to study, but critical to understand.
Jim Geach concludes, “What’s exciting about these blobs is that we are getting a rare glimpse of what’s happening around these young, growing galaxies. For a long time the origin of the extended Lyman-alpha light has been controversial. But with the combination of new observations and cutting-edge simulations, we think we have solved a 15-year-old mystery: Lyman-alpha Blob-1 is the site of formation of a massive elliptical galaxy that will one day be the heart of a giant cluster. We are seeing a snapshot of the assembly of that galaxy 11.5 billion years ago.”
Zooming in on a giant space blob
 The negatively charged electrons that orbit the positively charged nucleus in an atom have quantised energy levels. That is, they can only exist in specific energy states, and they can only transition between them by gaining or losing precise amounts of energy. Lyman-alpha radiation is produced when electrons in hydrogen atoms drop from the second-lowest to the lowest energy level. The precise amount of energy lost is released as light with a particular wavelength, in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, which astronomers can detect with space telescopes or on Earth in the case of redshifted objects. For LAB-1, at redshift of z~3, the Lyman-alpha light is seen as visible light.
 Resolution is the ability to see that objects are separated. At low resolution, several bright sources at a distance would seem like a single glowing spot, and only at closer quarters would each source be distinguishable. ALMA’s high resolution has resolved what previously appeared to be a single blob into two separate sources.
 The instruments used were the Space Telescope Imaging Spectograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Multi-Object Spectrometer For Infra-Red Exploration (MOSFIRE) mounted on the Keck 1 telescope on Hawaii.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “ALMA observations of Lyman-α Blob 1: Halo sub-structure illuminated from within” by J. Geach et al., to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.
The team is composed of J. E. Geach (Centre for Astrophysics Research, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, UK), D. Narayanan (Department of Physics and Astronomy, Haverford College, Haverford PA, USA; Department of Astronomy, University of Florida, Gainesville FL, USA), Y. Matsuda (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan; The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan), M. Hayes (Stockholm University, Department of Astronomy and Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics, Stockholm, Sweden), Ll. Mas-Ribas (Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway), M. Dijkstra (Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway), C. C. Steidel (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena CA, USA ), S. C. Chapman (Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada ), R. Feldmann (Department of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley CA, USA ), A. Avison (UK ALMA Regional Centre Node; Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, School of Physics and Astronomy, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK), O. Agertz (Department of Physics, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK), Y. Ao (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan), M. Birkinshaw (H.H. Wills Physics Laboratory, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK), M. N. Bremer (H.H. Wills Physics Laboratory, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK), D. L. Clements (Astrophysics Group, Imperial College London, Blackett Laboratory, London, UK), H. Dannerbauer (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain; Universidad de La Laguna, Astrofísica, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain), D. Farrah (Department of Physics, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg VA, USA), C. M. Harrison (Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, Department of Physics, Durham University, Durham, UK), M. Kubo (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan), M. J. Michałowski (Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, UK), D. Scott (Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada), M. Spaans (Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands) , J. Simpson (Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, UK), A. M. Swinbank (Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, Department of Physics, Durham University, Durham, UK ), Y. Taniguchi (The Open University of Japan, Chiba, Japan), E. van Kampen (ESO, Garching, Germany), P. Van Der Werf (Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands), A. Verma (Oxford Astrophysics, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK) and T. Yamada (Astronomical Institute, Tohoku University, Miyagi, Japan).
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).
ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
Research paper: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1632/eso1632a.pdf
Photos of ALMA: http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/category/alma/
Photos of VLT: http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/category/paranal/
Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array’s (ALMA): http://www.eso.org/public/teles-instr/alma/
ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT): http://www.eso.org/public/teles-instr/vlt/
Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE): http://www.eso.org/public/teles-instr/vlt/vlt-instr/muse/
Space Telescope Imaging Spectograph (STIS): http://www.spacetelescope.org/about/general/instruments/stis/
NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope: https://www.spacetelescope.org/
Multi-Object Spectrometer For Infra-Red Exploration (MOSFIRE): http://www2.keck.hawaii.edu/inst/mosfire/
Lyman-alpha Blobs (LABs): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyman-alpha_blob
Lyman-alpha radiation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyman-alpha_line
Centre for Astrophysics Research of the University of Hertfordshire: http://www.herts.ac.uk/research/centres-and-groups/car
Images, Text, Credits: ESO/J.Geach/D.Narayanan/R.Crain/A. Fujii/M. Hayes and Digitized Sky Survey 2/Video Credits: ESO/A. Fujii/Digitized Sky Survey 2/M. Hayes
Music: John Dyson (from the album Moonwind).
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