Massive galaxy cluster discovery sheds new light on how the largest structures in our universe are formed

News release

April 25, 2018 – Victoria, B.C.

Galaxy clusters are the largest objects in our universe. With masses comparable to a million-billion suns, they contain as many as 1,000 galaxies, vast amounts of dark matter, gargantuan black holes and X-ray-emitting gas that reaches over a million degrees Kelvin.

A dense concentration of galaxies is causing astrophysicists to question our understanding of how structures form in the universe. A study published in Nature journal today reports on a collection of galaxies observed when the universe was about one-tenth of its present age.

This particular galaxy cluster is so far away it takes 12.4 billion years for light from it to reach Earth. So while it was first observed last year, it was seen as it existed 1.4 billion years after the Big Bang—allowing astronomers a rare peek into galaxies forming in the early history of the universe.

A team of researchers from institutions including the National Research Council of Canada, Dalhousie University, the University of Victoria (UVic), the University of Illinois and the Flatiron Institute, have discovered a cluster of galaxies assembling very differently and more quickly than current models would predict. The nascent cluster is made up of at least 14 galaxies packed into a region of space just three times the size of our Milky Way galaxy and each is forming stars up to 1,000 times faster than ours is forming them. Calculations indicate that the astronomers are witnessing the assembly of one of the most massive structures in the present-day universe.

The study was co-led by Scott Chapman, Research Officer at the National Research Council of Canada and Professor at Dalhousie University, and Tim Miller, as a Master’s student at Dalhousie University. It was co-authored by a team of scientists including UVic Distinguished Professor, Arif Babul; astrophysics doctoral student, Douglas Rennehan; UVic advanced research computing specialist, Belaid Moa; University of Illinois Professor, Joaquin Vieira; and Christopher Hayward, Associate Research Scientist at the Centre for Computation Astrophysics, Flatiron Institute.

To predict how the cluster will assemble, a team led by Arif Babul used WestGrid and Compute Canada supercomputers to develop a numerical simulation. It showed that the core of the cluster will eventually combine into one giant galaxy, over the next billion years. Scientists anticipate that eventually this will prove to be one of the most massive clusters in the current-day universe.

This cluster system, originally discovered by the South Pole Telescope, was studied in detail using the Atacama Large Millimetre-submillimetre Array (ALMA). ALMA has the world’s most advanced radio astronomy detectors, developed by the National Research Council of Canada, which provided the detail necessary for the discovery of the system.

Additional multimedia

14 Galaxies on the Cusp of a Spectacular Collision
14 Galaxies on the Cusp of a Spectacular Collision: Computer-simulated image of the 14 galaxies packed in a region only three times the size of our Milky Way galaxy, as seen in the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observations. This unique cosmic conjunction is on the verge of coalescing into a massive galaxy cluster core only 1.4 billion years after the Big Bang (see the simulation movie for details). Credits: D. Rennehan, B. Moa, C Hayward / UVic, Westgrid, Compute Canada, Flatiron Institute.


"More so than any other candidate discovered to date, this seems like we’re catching a massive galaxy cluster in the process of being assembled. But how this assembly of galaxies got so big so fast is a bit of a mystery -- there’s some special aspect of this environment that’s causing the galaxies to form stars much more rapidly than our current models would predict. One possible explanation is that the gravitational tug caused by so many neighbouring galaxies compresses gas within a galaxy, triggering star formation."

– Scott Chapman, Research Officer at the National Research Council of Canada and Professor at Dalhousie University

"Having caught a massive galaxy cluster, and especially its gigantic central galaxy, in the throes of formation is spectacular in and of itself. But, the fact that this is happening so early in the history of the universe and in so dramatic a fashion poses a formidable challenge to our understanding of how and when structures in the universe form. Conventional wisdom suggests that the central cluster galaxy is assembled in dribs and drabs spread over 13 billion years, by cannibalizing smaller galaxies that venture too close. This discovery appears to upend this picture."

– Arif Babul, Astrophysicist at the University of Victoria

Quick facts

  • In total, the mass of the galaxies in this cluster is approximately 10 trillion times larger than the sun in the Milky Way.

  • This structure in early history is comparable to the largest known structures in our current-day universe, including the Virgo and Coma Cluster of galaxies.

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Media Relations Team
National Research Council of Canada
1-855-282-1637 (24/7)

Vimala Jeevanandam
Communications Officer
University of Victoria, Faculty of Science

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