Astronomers in the US have found what they claim is an ancient 'relic galaxy' near the Milky Way, using the Hubble Space Telescope.
The NASA scientists have been undertaking an "Indiana Jones-type quest" to find the rarest and oldest forms of stars in the universe. The relic galaxy they have found is believed to be around 10 billion years old.
"This wayward stellar island provides valuable new insights into the origin and evolution of galaxies billions of years ago," said the researchers.
In a galaxy known as NGC 1277, 220 million light years from the Milky Way, its stars were formed during a 100 million year interval about 12 billion years ago - at a rate "1,000 times faster than seen in our own Milky Way today".
What is unique about this galaxy is that it "abruptly went quiescent as the baby boomer stars aged and grew ever redder"
At the centre of NGC 1277 is believed to be what's known as a 'supermassive black hole', equivalent to 14 per cent of the total stellar mass of the galaxy, making it one of the largest known black holes in relation to the mass of its host galaxy.
However, what is unique about this galaxy is that it "abruptly went quiescent as the baby boomer stars aged and grew ever redder". The researchers have published their findings in the latest issue of academic journal Nature.
Although the Hubble telescope has identified so-called red and dead galaxies in the past, this is the first time that researchers have found one relatively close to Earth.
One in a thousand major galaxies share the same "relic" traits as NGC 1277
Ignacio Trujillo, from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias at the University of La Laguna in Spain, said: "We can explore such original galaxies in full detail and probe the conditions of the early universe."
The relic galaxy is believed to have twice the amount of stars that the Milky Way possesses, although it happens to be smaller. It is currently in a state called "arrested development".
According to the scientists, most galaxies start out in a compact state, but this particular one "failed to accrete more material to grow in size".
I've been studying globular clusters in galaxies for a long time, and this is the first time I've ever seen this
It is believed that one in a thousand major galaxies share the same "relic" traits as NGC 1277. The researchers said they were not "surprised to find it, but simply consider that it was in the right place at the right time to evolve - or rather not evolve - the way it did".
Michael Beasley, who is also from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, said: "I've been studying globular clusters in galaxies for a long time, and this is the first time I've ever seen this."
The galaxy is made up of red clusters, suggesting that it stopped producing stars a long time ago. And the existence of blue clusters shows that it "never grew further by gobbling up surrounding galaxies".
Beasley added: "I didn't believe the ancient galaxy hypothesis initially, but finally I was surprised because it's not that common to find what you predict in astronomy. Typically, the universe always comes up with more surprises that you can think about."
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