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Image credit: NASA, ESA, T. Johnson/University of Michigan

Early universe 'fireworks' challenge notions of how stars form

The ancient cosmos may have been packed with tiny star incubators.
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NASA, ESA, T. Johnson/University of Michigan

At the rate things are going, astronomers may have to toss out the rule book for galaxy formation. Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered an ancient galaxy (formed 2.7 billion years after the Big Bang) with two dozen star nurseries measuring 'just' 200 to 300 light years across. That sounds big, but scientists had expected that early universe star-forming regions had to be enormous, at 3,000 light years across or larger. Here, they're so tightly packed together that NASA researcher Jane Rigby likens them to "fireworks" popping off at a cosmic scale.

The team made this discovery through optical 'cheating.' Gravitational lensing from in-between objects magnified the source galaxy by 30 times, giving a peek at stars that would otherwise remain entirely unseen. Astronomers only needed software to correct for the distortions and see the galaxy's star-birthing areas as they would appear in real life.

It's not yet clear why these star-forming areas are so small. That's going to take additional study. However, you might get answers sooner than you think. When the James Webb Space Telescope goes into service, it'll be powerful enough to both cut through galactic dust and detect older stars. That extra detail will help explain the galaxy's history and might just answer numerous questions about star formation as a whole.

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