Image: Galaxy string
An artist's conception shows what scientists believe the galactic structure would look like from a distant vantage point. Only the most luminous galaxies have been detected so far.
updated 1/7/2004 9:30:47 PM ET 2004-01-08T02:30:47

Astronomers have found an immense structure of galaxies that formed much earlier in the history of the universe than most theorists had believed possible.

A team led by Povilas Palunas of the University of Texas said the objects, including 37 galaxies and one quasar, are aligned in a structure that is at least 300 million light-years long and 50 million light-years wide.

Palunas and his team presented a report on the discovery Wednesday at the national meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The astronomers said the structure is 10.8 billion light-years away, which means it formed when the universe was only 20 percent of its present age. No such structure has been found before this far away and so early in the history of the universe.

Only the brightest galaxies are seen
Palunas said the astronomers could detect only the brightest of the galaxies in the structure, but if the grouping follows the pattern of other large collections, it may include many thousands of dim, unseen galaxies.

Well-accepted theories of the early universe, supported by supercomputer simulations, have held that 10.8 billion years ago was too early after the Big Bang for the formation of stellar structures of this size. The Big Bang, which scientists theorize began the universe, is thought to have occurred about 13.7 billion years ago.

The discovery came as astronomers for the first time used instruments capable of mapping an area of the early universe large enough to reveal such a structure.

At least 16 “supercluster” galaxies have been found within 2 million light-years of Earth. The largest, called “the Great Wall,” is more than 250 million light-years long and was first described in 1989. A light-year is the distance light can travel in one year in a vacuum, about 5.8 trillion miles (9.3 trillion kilometers).

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