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This Galaxy Was Lifeless as Early as 700 Million Years After the Universe’s Birth

JADES quenched galaxy 8115 cutout caption

When a galaxy runs out of gas and dust, the process of star birth stops. That takes billions of years. But, there’s a galaxy out there that was already dead when the Universe was only 700 billion years old. What happened to it?

That’s what an international team of astronomers wants to know. “The first few hundred million years of the Universe was a very active phase, with lots of gas clouds collapsing to form new stars,” said Tobias Looser from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. “Galaxies need a rich supply of gas to form new stars, and the early universe was like an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

So, when the galaxy JADES-GS-z7-01-QU showed up in a JWST observation, it didn’t exhibit much evidence of ongoing star formation. (JADES stands for JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey.) It’s in what astronomers refer to as a “quenched” state and looks like star formation started and quickly stopped. Figuring out why this happened to the young galaxy is an important step in cosmology. Why did it stop creating stars? And, were the factors that affect star formation the same then as they are today?

This composite image of the GOODS-South field — the result of an extremely deep survey using two of the four giant 8.2-metre telescopes composing ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and a unique custom-built filter — shows some of the faintest galaxies ever seen.
Composite image of the GOODS-South field where galaxy JADES-GS-z7-01-QU lies. This is part of a deep survey using two 8.2-meter telescopes. JWST later zeroed in on a small portion of this field.
(Credit : ESO/M Hayes)

When a Galaxy Stops Forming Stars

Star-formation quenching is something astronomers don’t expect to happen quickly. “It’s only later in the universe that we start to see galaxies stop forming stars, whether that’s due to a black hole or something else,” said Dr Francesco D’Eugenio, also from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology and a co-author with Looser on a recent paper about JADES-GS-z7-01-QU.

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Star birth usually begins as clouds of gas coalesce together. Gas-rich regions, including galaxies, are prime spots for star-birth nurseries. JWST data about JADES-GS-z7-01-QU shows that this baby galaxy experienced a very intense period of star formation shortly after it began forming (after the Epoch of Reionization). For somewhere between 30 to 90 million years, it was ablaze with star formation. Then, suddenly, it stopped.

That’s not surprising—although astronomers aren’t sure why it stopped. Clearly, it ran out of gas. Maybe a supermassive black hole at its heart gobbled up much of the available “star stuff”. The black hole’s rapidly moving winds and jets could also have shoved a great deal of the star-birth material completely out of the galaxy. It’s also possible that the very rapid pace of star formation that JADES-GS-z7-01-QU experienced simply used up the supply. That’s not impossible, according to Looser. “Everything seems to happen faster and more dramatically in the early universe, and that might include galaxies moving from a star-forming phase to dormant or quenched,” he said.

Figuring out the Answer

It’s not clear from the current JWST data what happened to this little galaxy back at the dawn of time. Astronomers are still probing the data. “We’re not sure if any of those scenarios can explain what we’ve now seen with Webb,” said paper co-author Professor Roberto Maiolino. “Until now, to understand the early Universe, we’ve used models based on the modern universe. But now that we can see so much further back in time, and observe that the star formation was quenched so rapidly in this galaxy, models based on the modern universe may need to be revisited.”

The epoch of reionization was when light from the first stars could travel through the early Universe. At this time, galaxies began assembling, as did black holes. The young galaxy JADES-GS-z7-01-QU went through a star burst phase during this time, and then stopped forming stars. Credit: Paul Geil & Simon Mutch/The University of Melbourne
The epoch of reionization was when light from the first stars could travel through the early Universe. At this time, galaxies began assembling, as did black holes. The young galaxy JADES-GS-z7-01-QU went through a star burst phase during this time, and then stopped forming stars. Credit: Paul Geil/Simon Mutch/The University of Melbourne

That means more observations using JWST. “We’re looking for other galaxies like this one in the early universe, which will help us place some constraints on how and why galaxies stop forming new stars,” said D’Eugenio. “It could be the case that galaxies in the early universe ‘die’ and then burst back to life – we’ll need more observations to help us figure that out.”

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There’s one other possibility that astronomers will want to probe. JADES-GS-z7-01-QU looked dead at the time of its life when JWST observed it. But, it’s possible that the star-birth quenching was only a temporary thing. Maybe it was caused by periodic outflows of star-stuff material to interstellar space (driven by the black hole in the nucleus). Other galaxies have also been observed to be taking a star-birth break, but they’re much more massive than this one.

Perhaps JADES-GS-z7-01-QU started up the star-forming factory later in its history. In that case, it could well have grown much more massive in later epochs of cosmic history. And, this provides an intriguing idea: perhaps other “quenched” galaxies also took a break, then got a massive infusion of gas—perhaps through collisions with other galaxies—to create later generations of stars. Future JWST observations should uncover more of these galaxies and that should allow astronomers to study their quenched phases in more detail.

For More Information

Astronomers Spot Oldest ‘Dead’ Galaxy Yet Observed
A Recently Quenched Galaxy 700 Million Years After the Big Bang
A Recently Quenched Galaxy 700 Million Years After the Big Bang (arXiv preprint)

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Black couple overcomes racism to rent to Chinese family, who show gratitude by paying rent.

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Decades ago, in the early 1900s, racism and discriminatory housing practices plagued the town of Coronado, barring many individuals from living in certain neighborhoods based on their race. In the midst of this oppressive era, an inspiring story of resilience and generosity unfolded between two families — the Thompsons, a Black couple, and the Dongs, a Chinese family.

Gus and Emma Thompson, who were among the few Black families to own property in Coronado before racial restrictions took hold, defied the norms of the time by renting their house to the Dong family. Lloyd Dong Sr., a Chinese immigrant, and his wife found solace in the Thompsons’ willingness to offer them a place to call home despite the racist barriers they faced.

Fast forward 85 years later, the sons of Lloyd Dong Sr., Ron Dong, and Lloyd Dong Jr., have decided to pay forward the kindness shown to their family by donating $5 million from the sale of the house they eventually owned to San Diego State University’s Black Resource Center. This generous gift will help expand scholarships for Black students and fund renovations at the center, creating a lasting impact on the community.

Exterior view of a single-story home

The Dongs’ family house in Coronado, originally the home of the Thompsons.

(Courtesy of Janice Dong)

This heartwarming tale of intergenerational gratitude highlights the resilience and spirit of unity that transcends racial boundaries. Brandon Gamble, the director of the Black Resource Center, expressed the profound impact of this donation on the community, emphasizing the importance of stories that challenge racism and foster a sense of camaraderie.

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Reflecting on the legacy of his father and the Thompsons, Ron Dong shared, “That was the big plus for our family, because it has made all the difference for us.” The intertwined histories of the Thompson and Dong families serve as a testament to the power of empathy and solidarity in the face of adversity.

Gus Thompson’s journey from slavery to becoming a respected community leader in Coronado, coupled with Emma Thompson’s advocacy for civil rights, exemplifies the resilience and determination of marginalized communities to thrive in the face of oppression.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

(Norman Baynard Collection / San Diego History Center)

The legacy of allyship and support exemplified by the Thompsons extends to their willingness to assist Asian Americans facing similar discriminatory practices. This act of solidarity echoes the sentiment that in times of oppression, helping others regardless of race is not just a gesture but a necessity.

As the Dong family embraced their new home in Coronado, overcoming discrimination and forging their path to homeownership, they carried forward the spirit of resilience and unity shown to them by the Thompsons. The bond between these two families serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration in a society marred with division and prejudice.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and tent city on the beach, 1908.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and a tent city on the beach, 1908.

(Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

The resilience and determination displayed by the Dong family in the face of discrimination, coupled with their unwavering commitment to education and community upliftment, exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The decision to give back to the community through education underscores the transformative power of generosity and empathy in creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

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As the Dongs’ generous donation paves the way for future generations to access educational opportunities and resources, their story serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for all who strive to overcome adversity and champion unity in the face of division.

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