Discovery of Massive Galaxy Just 1.5 Billion Years After the Big Bang Has Astronomers Questioning Formation Models

Majestic Spiral Galaxy NGC 4414

The dusty spiral galaxy NGC 4414. Neeleman et al. report the observation of another galaxy disk that existed just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang, considerably earlier than previously reported disks. Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

Published recently in Nature, an international team of researchers has observed a massive, rotating disk galaxy just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang—1.5 billion years earlier in cosmic history than astronomers had expected to find such a galaxy based on previous studies. The research has fueled debate about how galaxies in the early Universe assembled.

The observations were made using one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

“This is an exciting discovery for astronomers because it provides clues as to how large-scale structure began to form in the Universe,” said Dr. Alfred Tiley from the UWA node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).

According to our current understanding of cosmology, galaxy formation follows a hierarchical order. First, dark matter ‘haloes’ are thought to develop, which then draw in surrounding gas that cools to form stars and eventually galaxies.

“In the early stages, some models predict that the gas heats up as it falls into the dark matter halo,” Tiley said.

“Over a long period the gas cools and allows the galaxy’s disk to form.

“But the discovery of a massive disk galaxy just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang tells us its formation may have followed a different path—possibly a cold-accretion model in which the infalling gas remained cold, allowing for the rapid condensation of the disk.

“At this stage, this is just one galaxy, so we need to find more like it to further test our models and help us better understand what exactly was going on in the early Universe.”

For more on this discovery, read Massive Rotating Disk in Early Universe Discovered by Largest Radio Telescope in the World.

Reference: “A Cold, Massive, Rotating Disk 1.5 Billion Years after the Big Bang” by Marcel Neeleman, J. Xavier Prochaska, Nissim Kanekar and Marc Rafelski, 20, May 2020, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2276-y

33 Comments on "Discovery of Massive Galaxy Just 1.5 Billion Years After the Big Bang Has Astronomers Questioning Formation Models"

  1. Yvan-Pierre Batinic | May 30, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Reply

    I think the whole shebang regarding inflationary theory, along with accelerating expansion of space, along with dark matter, are based on observations that they themselves lack in some way. I’m just an engineer, but in my field, there are no fudge factors. If something really weird is going on, I can’t get away with just inventing some invisible new cosmological constant — especially if it violates the laws of thermodynamics. Understanding that this is delving into areas difficult to fathom, and, truly appreciating the advances in the field of astrophysics, throw-in 10k PhDs working on String Theory, and I find myself rapidly losing confidence that theoretical science is actually hypothetical science, as it should be, prior to claiming to be researching any theory. Just a thought.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:11 am | Reply

      That is ” observations that they themselves lack” – lack what?

      The cosmological constant is not “invented”, it drops out of Einstein’s equations and must have some value – think differential equations. And it does not violate thermodynamics, how could it? Since space is flat, the inflationary big bang cosmology based on LCDM is closed both general relativistically and so thermodynamically – the universe is zero energy density on average. So for instance scaling up space over time doesn’t change the system energy, while the inner state has dark energy (the cosmological constant) push by pressure like any engine that works out isolated (think Otto engine with fuel and air intake closed). Further, dark energy being the zero energy potential of the quantum field conforms with thermodynamics on fields.

      Dunno why you mention string theory, since it doesn’t come into any of that. In fact, it turns out that string theory can’t predict the Higgs like slow roll scalar field that we see, which is yet another evidence that string theory is not a physics (but math). Natural supersymmetry is not observed in either particle accelerators (LHC), nor electron sphericity deviations (ACME), nor in any axion like particle searches.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:40 am | Reply


        “That is ” observations that they themselves lack” – lack what?” – What is ”observations that they themselves lack” – lack what?

        • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:42 am | Reply


          … it turns out that string theory can’t predict the Higgs like slow roll inflation scalar field that we see …

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 5:08 am | Reply

      I feel with you (but less since you mentioned a pet peeve of mine, ‘fudge factors’ of which there are none but is a terrible strawman) since I used to worry about energy too, until 2016-2018 when the cosmic background came out with space perfectly flat.

      So I wanted to add since the subject was total energy, that it seems negative potential energies such as in gravity adds up to the positive energies such as in matter and dark energy. (And the same effect applies within dark energy, since there are several fields that sum together to a small net energy density.) The average when seen as energy density must be taken over larger volumes than those that will be cohesive by gravitation despite expansion, which is on the order of our Local Group of galaxies or volumes ~ 19 million light years across.

      The next worry may be why flat space and why low dark energy density, but inflation seems to answer that. (Though the details is at the research edge, so I’ll stop here.)

    • Howard Jeffrey Bender | May 31, 2020 at 10:35 am | Reply

      I completely agree that weird observations demand better analyses to really get a grip on them. I started the same way, looking at the Dark Energy conclusion that space expansion was accelerating and looked a different way, a String Theory way. All matter and energy, including photons (light), have vibrating strings as their basis.

      String and anti-string pairs are speculated to be created in the quantum foam, a roiling energy field suggested by quantum mechanics, and they immediately annihilate each other. If light passes near these string/anti-string annihilations, perhaps some of that annihilation energy is absorbed by the string in the light. Then the Fraunhofer lines in that light will move a bit towards the blue and away from the red shift. As this continues in an expanding universe we get the same curve displayed by Perlmutter and colleagues at their Nobel Prize lecture, without the need for Dark Energy.

      This speculation has the universe behaving in a much more direct way. Specifics can be found in my YouTube

  2. Juan Rodriguez | May 30, 2020 at 3:18 pm | Reply

    I liked what you said and I thought I would add my feelings on the subject of astrophysics.
    If there is know proof in the math that we use to absolutely prove scientific anomalies then it’s ok to suppose but say so please.

    • Howard Jeffrey Bender | May 31, 2020 at 5:22 pm | Reply

      “Known proof in the math” and “absolutely prove scientific anomalies” are extremely rare. In quantum mechanics and String Theory the best you can do are very good approximations. Don’t forget – even Einstein’s Theory of Relatively and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution are still called theories, not proven facts.

  3. Howard Jeffrey Bender | May 30, 2020 at 3:47 pm | Reply

    Yes, String Theory has its opponents and proponents, but concepts within it can lead to novel ways of understanding our universe. For example, a view of String Theory speculates that a brane (dimensional membrane) surrounds our universe. What if such branes, rather than Black Holes, are also the centers of galaxies? Superheated gas would also form around branes, and they would explain how the matter in the universe became concentrated as galaxies even as the universe was, and still is, flying apart from the Big Bang at a rate that absolutely won’t allow any matter (quarks, even) to gravitationally attract each other to form anything. It would also explain those low-mass stars at the center of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, and other curious phenomena seen at those centers. I suggest the physical creation of galaxies using the quantum foam and similar to Hawking radiation can be described in my YouTube

  4. John Campbell | May 30, 2020 at 4:09 pm | Reply

    The evidence keeps mounting against Big Bang. Clearly it, and all the other theories built upon it, are flawed. It’s time to drop the term and simply accept the evidence as it is presented, instead of relating all new information against an UNPROVEN hypothesis.

    Sure there is expansion but it is now proven NOT to be a universally uniform phenomenon. This destroys the idea of the universe being created or originating by/in a single cataclysmic event and instead points to a far more locally-driven Newtonian mechanism.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:20 am | Reply

      No, it is well tested and accepted by cosmologists as any good encyclopedia would tell you: “now universally accepted” [ ].

      And there is ever more tests passed. This was one, since inflationary big bang simulations see the cold gas pathway according to the abstract.

      There is no proof that expansion is uneven [ ].

      Come on now, this is Cosmology 101! If you doubt it, develop, test and peer publish your own cosmology and others may consider it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:23 am | Reply

      No, it is well tested and accepted by cosmologists as any good encyclopedia would tell you: “now universally accepted” [Wikipedia; I would link, but then the comment becomes queued for approval.*]

      And there is ever more tests passed. This was one, since inflationary big bang simulations see the cold gas pathway according to the abstract.

      There is no proof that expansion is uneven. See “No, The Universe Cannot Be Expanding Differently In Different Directions”, Ethan Siegel, Forbes. [*]

      Come on now, this is Cosmology 101! If you doubt it, develop, test and peer publish your own cosmology and others may consider it.

  5. The big bang theory never made sense to me im certain our sciences will evolve and one day man will look back and say “remove that from our history it makes eartings look stupid and simple and naive almost arrogant we barely got into this federation because of crap like Trump and the Bushes or worse the Royal pinkie uppers…..” We dont know what we dont know because we dont have the data plus – this is the kicker – we are still living in the god fearing misrepresented ancient writings way and until we remove that crap and make it a D&D type game for the i cant let goers we will never know much at all. This universe is magical there is s#!t main streamers cant imagine could be true we are misguide mislead so important things are left to left….. If given the chance we no doubt will find all the answers we want and i understand science needs cold hard evidence (usually) to make a statement but when you head down the road with the windows up looking down at your cell phone its gonna take a looooooooooong time to get ‘it’….. Think as a hole not specific everything fits in this universal puzzle reel it in forget the light that has traveled (a number we cant really get a grasp of no matter how smart you think you are) so many light years (light years will slow us down btw there are things that we as humans cant see our dna has not evolved there yet one day the speed of light will be like am radio i dont care what your numbers tell you) …. Im done sorry to interrupt the big boy table 😊

  6. Paul Dirac was close!
    We live in an accelerating, mass-creating universe…
    Creation continues…
    It never stopped!

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:28 am | Reply

      The cosmic background radiation tells you the matter content, and we can see that it stays pretty constant (give or take fusion converting to radiation, et cetera) over time. (But dilutes with expansion, of course)

  7. Wait, what dark matter? I thought it was finally debunked these days with the realization of the clouds of particles floating around and holding mass.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:26 am | Reply

      Do you really expect to see something that is part and parcel of the current well tested cosmology, and is ever more tested every year, to become “debunked”!?

      “The clouds of particles floating around and holding mass” is – if dark – a good description of dark matter.

  8. Arron burton | May 31, 2020 at 2:47 am | Reply

    What I’ve always found a little niave about the big bang theory,is that scientists suggest that the universe is expanding.
    So rewind time to the distant past and the universe would’ve been a singularity at some point. This point is logical.
    But it’s based upon the idea that the universe has always been expanding.
    We discovered the expansion in 1929.
    So say 90 years ago.
    How old is the universe?
    The universe may go through expansion and retraction cycles for all we know.
    We’ve seen an expansion trend for 90 years and assume this is how it’s always been and always will be.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 4:38 am | Reply

      Expansion is an observation, not a “suggestion”. Look it up in Wikipedia, say.

      The reason why we know the universe is 14 billion years old and has expanded the entire time is the cosmic background radiation. When its photons – which derives from the hot big bang – was released, the gas cloud that filled the universe had cooled by expansion sufficiently to form atoms with electron shells. This is analogous to why we see Sun as having a surface – gas liberating photons – so that happens at the same temperatures or ~ 3,000 K. The expansion of the universe has taken the peak of the black body spectra of the cosmic background radiation down to ~3 K today.

      So an expansion that has stretched those photons 1,000 times, which fits the model age and expansion rates as per above. A basic cosmology course walks through this, there are free MOOCs on the web. But there are also more specific youtube videos that describe this in more detail, if you want the pity details.

  9. Derek Hendricks | May 31, 2020 at 3:29 am | Reply

    Personally,I suspect the Dark-Matter Halo part of the standard accretion model.Even in the modern era,we don’t see D-M accrete by itself.In a very chaotic/turbulent early universe,it is quite possible that on occasion,mass-concentration/black-hole formation began much earlier than previously believed.This would give sufficient time for cooling of collapsing gas-clouds .

  10. Torbjörn Larsson | May 31, 2020 at 3:58 am | Reply

    Well, this is good. The discovery paper explains that the cold gas infall pathway was predicted by current models. “Massive disk galaxies like the Milky Way are expected to form at late times in traditional models of galaxy formation1,2, but recent numerical simulations suggest that such galaxies could form as early as a billion years after the Big Bang through the accretion of cold material and mergers3,4.” Finding more of this will improve them further.

    After all, this is where the major research edge lies. “Perhaps the simulations’ single biggest lesson so far is not that scientists need to revise their overarching theory of cosmology, but rather that problems lurk in their understanding of astrophysics at smaller scales. In particular, their theory of star formation comes up wanting, Springel says.” [ ].

  11. Either Our Creator finds humor in all of the hard work scientists put into trying to prove The Big Bang Theory, et all, or HE feels sorry for them. Only by the hands of God could the magnificence of the universe and of life have been created. Science has its place, but this is not it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 1, 2020 at 10:21 am | Reply

      As we all know science is the only way to gain knowledge about nature, and since 2010ish wik Planck our knowledge of the universe is complete as far as components goes.

      On the other hand, superstition has nothing to say on anything.

  12. If energy is conserved, then what happens to the redshifted energy loss of (primordial) photons due to cosmic expansion?

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 1, 2020 at 10:30 am | Reply

      General relativity is nonlinear and has no general energy principle, so physicists use a couple depending on situation. But as I noted in my longish comment, we see that space is flat (from the cosmic background spatial spectra) and so the universe is on average zero energy density. That means that from the global perspective, nothing happens. The energy loss in the stretching out – and dilution – of photons is balanced by the other energies (and stresses, according to Einstein’s equation) changing under the constraint that the energy comes out zero density on scales much larger than the photons. (The scale must be larger than that local gravity can keep systems together, so since our Local Group of galaxies are such the scale is roughly that or at least ~ 10 million light years. IIRC the real scale is 10 times that, it’s a rough estimate. In any case much larger than individual photons.)

  13. Lewis Cassill | May 31, 2020 at 8:01 am | Reply

    They cannt even predict the weather beyond three days out.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 1, 2020 at 10:22 am | Reply

      But we can predict the seasonal climate swing and observe the man made global warning. But yes, individual galaxy development is more like local weather.

  14. Joseph Natan | May 31, 2020 at 8:10 pm | Reply

    Cosmic backgound could be just an optical illusion generated by cosmic lensing. That could lead us to assume infinite universe which is much more reasonable.

  15. Johann Popper | June 1, 2020 at 11:49 am | Reply

    I don’t know why with logicians and historians right down the hall at every university in the world, theoretical cosmologists who rely 100% on math aren’t regularly reminded that successful scientific methods are ultimately empirical ventures, and of course properly constructed presupposed foundational propositions will always be confirmed by non-empirical equations based on them (and every empirical measurement within the the foundational scope) in the manner of a tautology. Every time. There is simply no empirical evidence the universe is closed in any way. Unless you have absurd faith in the spectacular coincidence of humanity evolving to present abilities exactly when all relevant information is just at the edge of the observational limit, I’m afraid there is no empirical justification for any finite or closed model of the universe in totality. And lacking that, math alone can no longer be thought of as having the quality of 1:1 consonance with the either the essence of reality, nor any finite description of the cosmos. It is well past time to have lowered certain expectations in order to raise others.

  16. It’s amazing how all of this was breathed/spoken into existence. Electricity flows like water, as it chooses, yet in a controlled manner, throughout this cosmos.

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