The universe has changed quite a bit during its 13.7 billion years of existence. We look around us today and see massive galaxies like our Milky Way surrounded by faint dwarf galaxies that are about 1 percent the mass of the big galaxies.
But it wasn't always this way.
Once again, astronomers used the Hubble space telescope to look back in time and show how very different things were in the past.
In astronomy, we can directly see what has happened in the past because light travels over such vast distances that it can actually take billions of years to reach us.
This new "family portrait" of little galaxies dates back to roughly 9 billion years in the past. In general, galaxies were a lot smaller and eventually "grew up" over time by merging together into what we see today. Back then, things were a lot more chaotic.
These 69 new galaxies were detected by Hubble with infrared light. The light was measured at different wavelengths, or in different bands, and showed an excess of light in one band that indicated that oxygen atoms were getting excited by some process and emitting spectral lines.
Though this could be an indicator of a black hole pulling mass onto itself in the centers of these galaxies, it is unlikely, partly because the extra light comes from all over the galaxies, not just in one central point. And that is one part of this that amazes me, that even so far away, these galaxies make up more than just one tiny pixel on Hubble's camera!
You definitely want to zoom in on these gorgeous pictures.
The most likely explanation is that these are starburst galaxies. This means that they are forming stars at a prodigious rate, much faster than our galaxy is producing stars. All that light from the baby stars is what excites the gas around it, causing it to glow, not unlike a fluorescent sign.
These galaxies are churning out a LOT of stars for their small size, something like a hundred million stars in just 30 million years. Yes, that seems like a long time, but remember, the universe is over a thousand times older than that.
Previous evidence has shown that galaxies were more productive at earlier times, but the these little galaxies far exceeded astronomers' expectations. However, it is in line with evidence from present-day dwarf galaxies that most of their stars formed in one massive starburst event. You could say that these galaxies were pretty hyper in their youth, kind of like some toddlers that I know!
Images: Selections from the newly discovered starburst dwarf galaxy sample. Credits: NASA, ESA, A. van der Wel (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), H. Ferguson and A. Koekemoer (Space Telescope Science Institute), and the CANDELS team
This research has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, and a preprint is available at arxiv.org.