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Astronomy and astrophysics

Light from 11 billion years ago provides a view of galactic ‘protoclusters’ that could grow into behemoths.

Galaxies like to group together. The Milky Way and its nearest neighbours, for example, are part of the Virgo Cluster, which has more than 1,000 member galaxies. Now, in a bit of astronomical time travel, researchers have had a peek at how the cluster’s core might have looked around 11 billion years ago1.

Maria Polletta at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Milan, Italy, and her colleagues discovered two collections of young galaxies in a region of the sky called G237. Over time, these ‘protoclusters’ are expected to grow denser and more massive by pulling in more matter, eventually forming clusters similar to those we see today. The authors used data from sources including the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and Japan’s Subaru Telescope to analyse light from 63 galaxies inside these protoclusters — light emitted when the Universe was 3 billion years old.

The team found that the galaxies were pumping out stars at a high rate: equivalent to roughly 4,000 Suns a year. Future observations could help to pin down how such galaxies gobble up enough hydrogen gas to fuel their star production.

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