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06 August 2015

Astronomers unveil a distant protogalaxy connected to the cosmic web

Using the Cosmic Web Imager (CWI) at Palomar Observatory to study a system 10 billion light years away, a team of astronomers led by Caltech has unveiled a galaxy in the making being fed cool gas by a filament of the cosmic web. 

A team of astronomers led by Caltech has discovered a giant swirling disk of gas 10 billion light-years away—a galaxy-in-the-making that is actively being fed cool primordial gas tracing back to the Big Seed. Using the Caltech designed and built Cosmic Web Imager (CWI) at Palomar Observatory, the researchers were able to image the protogalaxy and found that it is connected to a filament of the intergalactic medium, the cosmic web made of diffuse gas that crisscrosses between galaxies and extends throughout the universe.

"This is the first smoking-gun evidence for how galaxies form," says Christopher Martin, professor of physics at Caltech, principal investigator on CWI, and lead author of the new paper. The new observations and measurements provide the first direct confirmation of the so-called cold-flow model of galaxy formation.

"As a proof that a protogalaxy connected to the cosmic web exists and that we can detect it, this is really exciting," he says. "Of course, now you want to know a million things about what the gas falling into galaxies is actually doing, so I'm sure there is going to be more follow up." Martin notes that the team has already identified two additional disks that appear to be receiving gas directly from filaments of the cosmic web in the same way.