UVic astronomer Jon Willis and colleagues discovered a 10 billion-year-old galaxy cluster. (Photo Courtesy of UVic Photos) Services.

Victoria astronomer helps discover 10 billion-year-old galaxy cluster

High-powered telescopes capture clearest picture yet of ‘mature, evolved’ system

A Victoria astronomer is amongst a group of international researchers responsible for capturing the clearest image to date of a space scene from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… 10 billion years away, to be exact.

Using high-powered telescopes, University of Victoria astronomer Jon Willis and his colleagues discovered a 10 billion-year-old galaxy cluster. Willis, who is the lead author of the group’s research, published in the science journal Nature, says a galaxy cluster can be likened to “a great city of galaxies,” though galaxies themselves are “collections of billions of stars all held together by gravity.”

Researching the stars that compose galaxies help researchers determine how old they are and when they formed, Willis says. In a media release, the University of Victoria says the recent discovery “provides clues the universe was more evolved than previously thought.”

READ ALSO: UVic astronomers help discover new planet

A composite image of the galaxy cluster XLSSC 122 using images from the Hubble Space Telescope and European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. (Photo by Jon Willis).

Willis likens the discovery to finding a Rosetta Stone.

“We’ve discovered what is the most ancient city of galaxies in the universe. It’s the clearest snapshot yet of a galaxy cluster,” he says. “The Rosetta Stone was a glimpse into ancient Egyptian history, this discovery provides clues to understanding the physics of what was going on in that environment billions of years ago.”

Willis says researchers were surprised to find a galaxy cluster so early in the universe’s development. The cluster, at 10 billions years old, is an old object in a young (13-billion-year-old) universe.

“It’s an equivalent of meeting a child who displays all the characteristics of an adult,” Willis says. “We have met these young clusters – think the universe was just over three billion years old – so we’ve found it’s quite a precocious object and it can teach us about how physics works in the early universe.”

The powerful, prominent images of the cluster were taken from the Hubble Space Telescope and European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. A number of other telescopes were used to get to the discovery, Willis says.

The research group, which includes scientists from Denmark, Canada and the U.S., will likely apply to study the cluster using NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble and expected to be available in 2020 or early 2021.

READ ALSO: Student protesters blockade UVic administrative building, fight for fossil fuel divestment

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