Image: Artist’s impression of the quasar 3C 279
ESO/M. Kornmesser
This is an artist’s impression of the quasar 3C 279. Astronomers connected the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), in Chile, to the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, USA, and the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) in Arizona, USA for the first time, to make the sharpest observations ever, of the centre of a distant galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279. Image released July 18, 2012.
updated 7/18/2012 12:59:31 PM ET 2012-07-18T16:59:31

A telescope in South America has found tantalizing evidence of primitive galaxies born in the early universe, a find that, if confirmed, would mark the first-ever view of the so-called "dark galaxies."  

Dark galaxies are small, gas-rich objects from the early universe. The existence of such galaxies, which are devoid of stars, but packed with gas, has long been predicted in galaxy formation theories, but direct proof of them has so far remained elusive.

Now, an international team of astronomers may have found dark galaxies by using the light from quasars, the brightest and most energetic objects in the universe, as a guide.

Quasars are powered by enormous black holes that give off huge amounts of energy and light as gas, dust and other material falls into their cores. The astronomers pinpointed the dark galaxies by their glow from the quasars' light.

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"Our approach to the problem of detecting a dark galaxy was simply to shine a bright light on it," study co-author Simon Lilly, of ETH Zurich, an engineering and science university in Switzerland, said in a statement. "We searched for the fluorescent glow of the gas in dark galaxies when they are illuminated by the ultraviolet light from a nearby and very bright quasar. The light from the quasar makes the dark galaxies light up in a process similar to how white clothes are illuminated by ultraviolet lamps in a night club."

The quasar key
In the new study, the scientists were able to glean some preliminary characteristics of the dark galaxies. They estimate that the mass of the gas in such galaxies is roughly 1 billion times that of the sun, which is expected for gas-rich, low-mass galaxies in the early universe. [ 7 Surprising Things About the Universe ]

The astronomers also estimate that star formation in the dark galaxies is suppressed by a factor of more than 100 compared with typical star-forming galaxies at similar stages in their cosmic histories.

In theories of galaxy formation, dark galaxies are thought to be the building blocks of the bright, star-filled galaxies we see today. Some theories state that dark galaxies may have also funneled gas to larger galaxies to form the stars that currently exist.

But dark galaxies are inherently challenging to spot, the researchers said. Since dark galaxies have no stars, they do not emit much light. Astronomers have long attempted to confirm their existence using new techniques that could reveal dark galaxies in the cosmos.

Previous studies of small absorption dips in the spectra of background light sources were thought to have hinted at dark galaxies, but this new study may be the first time that these mysterious objects have been directly detected.

Chasing dark galaxies
Using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in northern Chile, the researchers saw the extremely faint fluorescent glow of the dark galaxies. They used the telescope's FORS2 instrument to map a region of the sky around the bright quasar HE 0109-3518, searching for ultraviolet light that is released by hydrogen gas when it is bombarded with intense radiation.

"After several years of attempts to detect fluorescent emission from dark galaxies, our results demonstrate the potential of our method to discover and study these fascinating and previously invisible objects," study lead author Sebastiano Cantalupo, from the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement.

The astronomers found almost 100 gaseous objects within a few million light-years of the brilliant quasar. They eventually narrowed the list to 12, after weeding out objects where the emission might be a product of star formation in the galaxies, rather than from the quasar's light.

According to the researchers, these objects represent the most convincing detections of dark galaxies in the early universe to date.

"Our observations with the VLT have provided evidence for the existence of compact and isolated dark clouds," Cantalupo said. "With this study, we've made a crucial step towards revealing and understanding the obscure early stages of galaxy formation and how galaxies acquired their gas."

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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