PASADENA, Calif. – An orbiting NASA (search) telescope that scans the heavens has found evidence of massive "baby" galaxies that runs counter to a belief that only small new galaxies are being formed by the aging universe.
The findings released Tuesday come from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (search), a mission led by the California Institute of Technology (search) that was launched into Earth orbit in 2003 to study 10 billion years of the evolution of galaxies.
"We knew there were really massive young galaxies eons ago, but we thought they had all matured into older ones more like our Milky Way," said Chris Mart parts of the universe are still hotbeds of galaxy birth," Martin said in a statement issued by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (search).
The discoveries include three dozen bright and compact galaxies that look like the young galaxies that existed more than 10 billion years ago, the researchers said.
Those galaxies are considered to be relatively close, on the order of 2 billion to 4 billion light years from Earth, and their ages may be 100 million years to 1 billion years.
By comparison, Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 10 billion years old.
The researchers said the discoveries will allow scientists to see what the Milky Way might have looked like when it was young.
"It's like finding a living fossil in your own backyard," said Tim Heckman of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of Martin's colleagues. "We thought this type of galaxy had gone extinct, but in fact newborn galaxies are alive and well in the universe."
The Galaxy Evolution Explorer made the discoveries because it has sensitive ultraviolet light detectors, and young stars emit mostly ultraviolet wavelengths.
The mission was developed under a program at NASA's Explorers Program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. JPL manages the mission. Two other nations, South Korea and France, are partners in it.