Pasadena, CA—Using information from a suite of telescopes, astronomers have discovered a mysterious, giant object that existed at a time when the universe was only about 800 million years old. Objects such as this one are dubbed extended Lyman-Alpha blobs; they are huge bodies of gas that may be precursors to galaxies. This blob was named Himiko for a legendary, mysterious Japanese queen. It stretches for 55 thousand light years, a record for that early point in time. That length is comparable to the radius of the Milky Way’s disk.
The researchers are puzzled by the object. Even with superb data from the world’s best telescopes, they are not sure what it is. Because it is one of the most distant objects ever found, its faintness does not allow the researchers to understand its physical origins. It could be ionized gas powered by a super-massive black hole; a primordial galaxy with large gas accretion; a collision of two large young galaxies; super wind from intensive star formation; or a single giant galaxy with a large mass of about 40 billion Suns. Because this mysterious and remarkable object was discovered early in the history of the universe in a Japanese Subaru field, the researchers named the object after the legendary mysterious queen in ancient Japan.
"The farther out we look into space, the farther we go back in time, " explained lead author Masami Ouchi, a fellow at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution who led an international team of astronomers from the U.S., Japan, and the United Kingdom. "I am very surprised by this discovery. I have never imagined that such a large object could exist at this early stage of the universe’s history. According to the concordance model of Big Bang cosmology, small objects form first and then merge to produce larger systems. This blob had a size of typical present-day galaxies when the age of the universe was about 800 million years old, only 6% of the age of today’s universe!"