Massive cosmic carbon stream could feed galaxy for 500 million years

The colossal stream could feed star formation in an early galaxy for 500 million years.
Chris Young
Emission from carbon atoms in the stream is highlighted in blue.
Emission from carbon atoms in the stream is highlighted in blue.

B. Emonts (NRAO/AUI/NSF) 

Astronomers detected a colossal cold stream of intergalactic atomic carbon gas in radio telescope observations.

It is so massive that it could fuel galaxy formation for 500 million years, according to the scientists behind the observation.

The findings provide observational evidence supporting theoretical cosmological models and also shed new light on the origins of the processes and materials that lead to galaxy and star formation.

A colossal cold cosmic carbon stream

The researchers, led by Dr. Bjorn Emonts, associate scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to map the atomic carbon gas surrounding the galaxy 4C 41.17.

4C 41.17 is a large radio galaxy from the early universe, meaning the researchers had to maximize the radio telescope's surface brightness sensitivity using ALMA's most compact and low-resolution configuration.

According to the scientists, who published their findings in a new study in the journal Science, that low-resolution configuration likely helped them detect a cold molecular stream that has gone undetected in previous studies.

Their observations revealed a narrow stream of cold gas extending at least 100 kiloparsecs (~326,000 lightyears) outside the galaxy and into intergalactic space. That means the stream is several times larger than the galaxy it is seemingly feeding.

The researchers explained in a press statement that their observations are consistent with cold gas streams predicted by cosmological models. They believe the cold atomic gas stream could fuel star formation for more than 500 million years.

A key element in early galaxy formation

Galaxies typically grow and evolve by accreting gas. This can happen due to mergers with other galaxies, and it can also occur when galaxies feed on streams of cold molecular gas like the one detected in the new study.

The latter type of accretion is known as cold stream accretion, and some scientists believe it to be responsible for the high star formation rates and the rapid evolution of galaxies in the early universe.

Cold accretion streams are incredibly elusive, however, meaning the new observation could provide valuable insight into the evolution of some of the very earliest galaxies.

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