(CN) — For the first time ever, scientists have photographed ancient gas threads that make up the cosmic web of the universe and serve as the original creators of galaxies — images that have also inadvertently revealed a host of dwarf galaxies we didn’t even know existed.
While the formation of galaxies in our universe represents an impossibly complex process that scientists are still attempting to fully unravel, one central and well-discussed element to this cosmic equation is the idea of what experts call the cosmic web of the universe.
According to the data models put forth by the Big Bang, the cosmic web acts as a structure of hydrogen-based gaseous strands that most galaxies in the cosmos — including our own — are born from. It is a network of filaments that essentially acts as the foundation upon which entire stretches of space are constructed and it has provided shape to the universe since its earliest years following the Big Bang.
The challenge with the cosmic web, however, is that experts have never actually been able to view it directly. Instead, astronomers have been relegated to gauging the cosmic web through the superhot radiation emitted from quasars — massive galactic objects that produce an extraordinary amount of energy — that help to illuminate distant gaseous bodies. This method has often left much to desired, as it is only capable of revealing a tiny fraction of the cosmic web’s epic scope.
Now, experts reveal that they have at long last captured direct images of the cosmic web itself, images that also presented researchers with an interesting surprise.
In a study published Wednesday in Astronomy & Astrophysics, experts reveal they used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to take photographs of the light coming off the gaseous filaments that make up the cosmic web deep in outer space, the first effort to successfully capture the phenomenon directly.
While this breakthrough is groundbreaking on its own terms, to make matters more interesting, researchers discovered the light coming from the gas threads they were observing were not coming from anywhere we knew existed. Upon closer inspection of their date, researchers found that the light they captured was coming from billions of dwarf galaxies and a vast collection of different stars in a distant quadrant of space.
Experts made this startling discovering by outfitting the Very Large Telescope with a unique device known as MUSE (Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer) that can use visible wavelengths to observe galactic data other instruments are blind to. Combined together, experts say that the Very Large Telescope and MUSE make up one of the most powerful detection instruments on the planet today and can give experts a virtually unrivaled look into the reaches of space.
Researchers then aimed the mighty telescope at an exact point in the sky that makes up the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, a section of the cosmos that serves as the deepest point humans have ever been able to directly observe.
The telescope was left to gaze into this direction for around 140 hours before it eventually provided experts with the first ever precise look at the cosmic web.
The study reports that this unprecedented process was preceded by months of careful planning and even after the telescope’s job was complete, researchers then spent the next year pouring over the data to determine what exactly they had found.
It was this exhaustive examination that revealed to experts that they had captured images of the cosmic web, including a handful of filaments that were formed just one to two billion years following the Big Bang, and had stumbled upon the existence of entirely new star systems.
While these newly discovered galaxies are too far away for our current technology to examine in greater detail, their simple existence could have major implications moving forward. This new breakthrough could have a significant impact on current models we use to study galaxy formations and experts report they are only just beginning to scratch the surface on what this could mean for our broader understanding of the cosmos.