Hubble explores the origins of modern galaxies

Astronomers have used observations from Hubble’s CANDELS survey to explore the sizes, shapes, and colours of distant galaxies over the last 80% of the Universe’s history. In the Universe today galaxies come in a variety of different forms, and are classified via a system known as the Hubble Sequence — and it turns out that this sequence was already in place as early as 11 billion years ago.

The Hubble Sequence classifies galaxies according to their morphology and star-forming activity, organising them into a cosmic zoo of spiral, elliptical, and irregular shapes with whirling arms, fuzzy haloes and bright central bulges. Two main types of galaxy are identified in this sequence: elliptical and spiral, with a third type, lenticular, settling somewhere between the two.

This accurately describes what we see in the region of space around us, but how does galaxy morphology change as we look further back in time, to when the Universe was very young?

The astronomers used Hubble to look 11 billion years back in time to when the Universe was very young, exploring the anatomy of distant galaxies.

While it was known that the Hubble Sequence holds true as far back as around 8 billion years ago, these new observations push a further 2.5 billion years back in cosmic time, covering a huge 80% of the past history of the Universe. The new CANDELS observations confirm that all galaxies this far back — big and small alike — fit into the different classifications of the sequence.

The galaxies at these earlier times appear to be split between blue star-forming galaxies with a complex structure — including discs, bulges, and messy clumps — and massive red galaxies that are no longer forming stars, as seen in the nearby Universe.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Kornmesser

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