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UWA astronomers help discover billion-year-old ‘cosmic ring of fire’

Stephen Kuper

A University of Western Australia scientist is part of a global team of astronomers that have captured an image of a super-rare type of galaxy – described as a ‘cosmic ring of fire’ – as it existed 11 billion years ago.

UWA astronomers help discover billion-year-old ‘cosmic ring of fire’
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The galaxy named R5519, which has roughly the mass of the Milky Way, is circular with a hole in the middle, rather like a titanic doughnut. Its discovery, announced in the journal Nature Astronomy, is set to shake up theories about the earliest formation of galactic structures and how they evolve.

UWA scientist Dr Ahmed Elagali, who is based at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia, said studying R5519 would help determine when spiral galaxies began to develop.

R5519 is 11 billion light years from the solar system. The hole at its centre is truly massive, with a diameter 2 billion times longer than the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Dr Elagali explained, "Constraining the number density of ring galaxies through cosmic time can also be used to put constraints on the assembly and evolution of local-like galaxy groups."

It is 3 million times bigger than the diameter of the supermassive black hole in the galaxy Messier 87, which in 2019 became the first ever to be directly imaged.

Lead researcher Dr Tiantian Yuan, from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), who is based at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology said the galaxy was a curious object never seen before.

"It looks strange and familiar at the same time. It is making stars at a rate 50 times greater than the Milky Way. Most of that activity is taking place on its ring – so it really is a ring of fire," Dr Yuan said.

Dr Yuan used spectroscopic data gathered by the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii and images recorded by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to identify the unusual structure.

The evidence suggests it is a type known as a “collisional ring galaxy”, making it the first one ever located in the early universe.

There are two kinds of ring galaxies. The more common type forms because of internal processes. Collisional ones form – as the name suggests – as a result of immense and violent encounters with other galaxies.

In the nearby 'local' universe they are 1,000 times rarer than the internally created type. Images of the much more distant R5519 stem from about 10.8 billion years ago, just 3 billion years after the Big Bang. They indicate that collisional ring galaxies have always been extremely uncommon.

Professor Kenneth Freeman who is a scientist from the Australian National University, said the discovery had implications for understanding how galaxies like the Milky Way formed.

"The collisional formation of ring galaxies requires a thin disk to be present in the ‘victim’ galaxy before the collision occurs," Professor Freeman said. 

He added, "In the case of this ring galaxy, we are looking back into the early universe by 11 billion years, into a time when thin disks were only just assembling. For comparison, the thin disk of our Milky Way began to come together only about 9 billion years ago. This discovery is an indication that disk assembly in spiral galaxies occurred over a more extended period than previously thought."

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