In Brief

Astronomers identify oldest galaxies in the universe

Two clusters of star systems may have formed during the cosmic dark ages

Some of the earliest galaxies in the universe are closer and older than was first thought in what scientists are describing as a breakthrough discovery. 

Astronomers from Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology have uncovered two clusters of galaxies on the fringes of our own galaxy – the Milky Way – that are thought to be around 13 billion years old, Sky News reports.

The team of astronomers, along with scientists from the Massachusetts-based Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, have likened the discovery to finding “the remains of the first humans that inhabited the Earth”. 

According to the BBC, the first cluster of galaxies appear to have formed during a period that scientists call the “cosmic dark ages”. This period occurred around 380,000 years after the Big Bang happened and lasted roughly 100 million years. 

The second, meanwhile, contains “slightly brighter” galaxies than the first, which suggests it was formed “hundreds of millions of years” later, the BBC reports.

Prior to the discovery, researchers had developed a model that predicted how the first galaxies were formed in the universe, the Daily Mail says. 

What’s remarkable, though, is that the model matches “perfectly” the data gathered from locating the two galaxy clusters, the paper adds. 

Dr Sownak Bose, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the discovery wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. Ten years ago older theoretical models weren’t capable of identifying the faintest galaxies in the nearby vicinity of the Milky Way. 

But the “increasing sensitivity” of models used to predict the locations of galaxies means a “new trove” of tiny star systems are now waiting to be investigated, he said.

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