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Largest galaxy cluster of early universe found, scientists say

To get a more precise estimate of the galaxy cluster’s mass, Michael McDonald and his colleagues used data from several of NASA’s Great Observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Keck Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Courtesy of the researchers.

Just as Earth had great, early civilizations like Athens and Rome, the universe also built a vast collection of galaxies during its first 4 billion years and now researchers have found the largest one to amass during those initial days.

The enormous band of galaxies, also known as a galaxy cluster, is 10 billion light years from Earth and is 1,000 times larger than the Milky Way, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which participated in research leading to this discovery.

“It’s the most massive cluster to assemble in the first 4 billion years of the universe,” said Michael McDonald, assistant professor of physics at MIT and a member of the school’s Kavli Center for Astrophysics and Space Research. “It’s sort of like the first civilization to pop up.”


The existence of the gigantic galaxy cluster, which potentially contains thousands of individual galaxies, was detailed Thursday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Fla. The study was led by University of Missouri astronomer Mark Brodwin and the results have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope first detected signs of the cluster in 2012, MIT said. Researchers also used data from the Hubble Space Telescope, W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and Chandra X-ray Observatory to measure the mass of the galaxy cluster, MIT said.

Science and flight operations for Chandra, which is in space, are handled by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge.

The cluster’s name, IDCS J1426.5+3508, is not a memorable one, but McDonald said the collection of galaxies has the potential to reveal how the universe’s chemical composition has evolved in the last 10 billion years and show how systems of stars develop.

Astronomers have detected a massive, sprawling, churning galaxy cluster that formed only 3.8 billion years after the Big Bang. The cluster, shown here, is the most massive cluster of galaxies yet discovered in the first 4 billion years after the Big Bang.NASA/ESA/University of Florida, Gainsville/University of Missouri-Kansas City/UC Davis

Up to now, McDonald said, scientists have been mostly limited to examining nearby galaxy systems, which were fully matured.


This galaxy cluster offers a look at how these networks appear in their earliest stages, he said.

“It tells us something about how these systems grow and when they grew and when the bulk of that growth happens,” McDonald said.

The relative youth of this galaxy cluster is apparent, said McDonald, who likened its appearance to a gawky teenager. He said it took 3 to 3½ billion years for the cluster to develop, though because of the time it takes for light to travel to Earth, scientists can only see it as it appeared 10 billion years ago.

“It looks like a construction site,” McDonald said. “It looks unfinished.”

Researchers found a “bright knot” of X-rays off center from the cluster, suggesting that its core has shifted, MIT said.

“The scientists surmise that the core may have been dislodged from a violent collision with another massive galaxy cluster, causing the gas within the cluster to slosh around, like wine in a glass that has been suddenly moved,” the school said.

The cluster is not visible from Earth, unless you have infrared eyes, McDonald said.

In images taken from telescopes, McDonald said, the cluster is faint and looks like a smudge. But there’s more than meets the eye.

“It’s underwhelming at first but . . . we’re seeing something that’s 10 billion light years away,” he said. “I think it’s very impressive.”

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.