Forget what you know about cosmos – astronomers find a galaxy without stars

It was discovered accidentally. Gases are so dispersed that star formation is delayed indefinitely.

Researchers working at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the U.S., announced at the 8 January 2024 annual meeting of the American Astronomy Society that they have found a galaxy that has no stars.

The discovery, which surprised many and turns the entire knowledge about cosmos upside down, appears to be due to the pointing of the Green Bank Telescope in a wrong direction while surveying hydrogen gas in Low Surface Brightness (LSB) galaxies. 

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The newly-found object, called J0613+52, is located 270 million light years away and consists of dynamic masses of ultra-diffuse gases. The puzzling findings challenge our understanding of how stars and galaxies are formed, the observatory said in a statement on its website

LSB galaxies – there are countless of them, as you realized already – are significantly less bright than other glimmering objects populating the Universe, because the gasses they contain are so dispersed that few stars can be born there.

“What we do know is that it’s an incredibly gas rich galaxy. It’s not demonstrating star formation like we’d expect, probably because its gas is too diffuse. At the same time, it’s too far from other galaxies for them to help trigger star formation through any encounters. J0613+52 appears to be both undisturbed and underdeveloped. This could be our first discovery of a nearby galaxy made up of primordial gas,” the statement quotes Karen O'Neil, a senior scientist of the Green Bank Observatory, as saying about the research.

The classification of LSB galaxy holds that such an object would still have some stars, but J0613+52 seems to have none at all, which is very rare in the space exploration sciences.

Instead of stars (or planets), the “fully dark” J0613+52 (pictured above) is filled with hydrogen amounting for one to two billion solar masses, stretching for hundreds of millions of light-years.

In 2021 and 2023, two “almost dark” galaxies were found: AGC 229101, as part of the ALFALFA Survey, and Nube, as part of the IAC Stripe82 Legacy Project, but both still have stars inside.

The team behind the discovery admits that more analyses and observations are necessary in order to confirm beyond any doubt that J0613+52 is a starless galaxy; after all there could be a few stars hiding in there, it’s just we can’t detect them yet.

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If not, there’s a huge open question: can such a large masses of gas remain in a diffuse, uncollapsed state for so long?

Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist and author of "Starts with a Bang!", gave a reflection on this topic in the Big Think. 

“Perhaps, even for all 13.8 billion years that our Universe has experienced, going all the way back to the start of the hot Big Bang? In most cases, clouds will accumulate enough matter to collapse, and when they do, they’ll trigger the first burst of star formation in that region of space, polluting the interstellar medium from the detritus of the first stars to die, creating a bevy of enriched elements that leave a telltale spectroscopic signature behind, rich in oxygen, carbon, and other heavy elements.”

He added, “With the discovery of J0613+52 now in hand, the next scientific steps will provide a window into our cosmic past that astronomers have never had access to before.”

The Green Bank Observatory is a major facility of the National Science Foundation and is operated by Associated Universities, Inc. The first national radio astronomy observatory in the US, it’s home to the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world.


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