Courtesy of NASA
Courtesy of NASA

UCR physics and astronomy professor Gillian Wilson, along with graduate students Andrew DeGroot and Ryan Foltz have helped discover a galaxy cluster — regions of space which contain hundreds of galaxies — with researchers across the UC system.

This cluster, which lies 10 billion light-years away, is forming stars 800 times the mass of our sun in as little as one year. With the assistance of the W.M. Keck Observatory’s MOSFIRE (Multi-Object Spectrometer For Infra-Red Exploration) instrument, the researchers have discovered that the galaxy in the middle of the cluster is growing a large amount of stars by consuming gas from nearby galaxies and converting them to stars.

Wilson states that this discovery may disprove a former theory that the galaxy in the middle of the cluster — nicknamed the “Brightest Cluster Galaxy”(BCG) — consumes gases without forming stars. “Instead the BCG may actually grow by forming the stars itself,” Wilson explained.

The goal of this project is to help the researchers understand the nature of dark energy — the repulsive force that counteracts gravity and allows the universe to expand at a massive rate. As the BCG is forming stars at a rapid rate, a closer analysis of similar clusters may display how dark energy is formed and what it can create.

While this cluster is the first one that has lead to a discovery of the nature of the BCG’s star formation, the research team will continue to study 200 other different galaxy clusters as well to verify if their findings are consistent.

The research was funded by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). According to Wilson, the grants collectively amount to approximately a million dollars, which are used to support galaxy cluster research with ground and space telescopes.

In addition, the NSF grant has provided funding for outreach activities on campus, in addition to funding research. Wilson states that part of the funding allows the department to host astronomy themed art pieces created by UCR honors students, which include musical performances to graphic novels, which will be displayed across campus this quarter. It has also allowed the department to fund materials for public astronomy viewings such as the lunar eclipse on Sept. 27.

Wilson personally hopes that this research can influence undergraduate students to pursue their education further in the physics and astronomy fields. “I hope that undergraduate students will learn about Andrew & Ryan’s work and be inspired to apply to graduate school.”