The ‘Cores’ of Massive Galaxies Found to Have Formed A Billion Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

Maunakea, Hawaii – A distant galaxy more massive than our Milky Way — with more than a trillion stars — has revealed that the ‘cores’ of  massive galaxies in the universe had already formed 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang, about 1 billion years earlier than previous measurements revealed.  

Researchers published their analysis in the November 6 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a journal of the American Astronomical Society.

“If we point a telescope to the sky and take a deep image, we can see so many galaxies out there,” said Masayuki Tanaka, lead author and associate professor of astronomical science in the Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. “But our understanding of how these galaxies form and grow is still quite limited — especially when it comes to massive galaxies.”

Galaxies are broadly categorized as dead or alive: dead galaxies are no longer forming stars, while living galaxies are still bright with star formation activity.

A ‘quenching’ galaxy is one that is in the process of dying – meaning its star formation is significantly suppressed. Quenching galaxies are not as bright as fully alive galaxies, but they’re not as dark as dead galaxies. Researchers use this spectrum of brightness as the first line of identification when observing the universe.

Figure 2: A schematic view of this work. The dying galaxy in the Subaru/XMM-Newton Deep Field was observed with MOSFIRE on the Keck I telescope. The top-right panel shows the spectrum at 2 microns, which is invisible to the human eye. The spectrum gives the distance to the galaxy (12 billion years ago) as well as a mass of the galaxy, which turned out to be as massive as the core of galaxies today. Credit: NAOJ/Tanaka et al. 2019.

The researchers used the telescopes at W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaii to observe a quenching galaxy in what is called the Subaru/XMM-Newton Deep Field. This region of the sky has been closely observed by several telescopes, producing a wealth of data for scientists to study.

Tanaka and his team used the Multi-Object Spectrograph for Infrared Exploration (MOSFIRE) instrument on the Keck I telescope to obtain measurements of the galaxy. They obtained a two-micron measurement in the near-infrared spectrum, which the human eye cannot see, but it confirmed that the light from the galaxy was emitted just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. The team also confirmed that the galaxy’s star formation was suppressed.

“The suppressed star formation tells you that a galaxy is dying, sadly, but that is exactly the kind of galaxy we want to study in detail to understand why quenching occurs,” said Francesco Valentino, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor at the Cosmic Dawn Center in Copenhagen.

According to Valentino, astronomers believe that massive galaxies are the first to die in the history of the universe and that they hold the key to understanding why quenching occurs in the first place.

“We also found that the ‘cores’ of massive galaxies today seem to be fully formed in the early universe,” Tanaka said.

How stars move within a galaxy depends on how much mass that object contains. Tanaka and his team found that the stars in the distant galaxy seem to move just as quickly as those closer to home.

“The previous measurement of this kind was made when the universe was 2.5 billion years old. We pushed the record up to 1.5 billion years and found, to our surprise, that the core was already pretty mature.”

The researchers continue to investigate how massive galaxies form and how they die in the early universe, and they are searching for more massive quenching galaxies in the far distant universe that may shed light on earlier phases of the process.

“When did the first dead galaxy appear in the universe?” Tanaka asked. “This is a very interesting question for us to address. To do so, we will continue to observe the deep sky with the largest telescopes and expand our search as more advanced facilities become available.”

This work was funded, in part, by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, the Danish National Research Foundation, the Carlsberg Foundation, the European Research Council, the Japanese Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the Toray Science Foundation, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Princeton University.

Other contributors include Sune Toft, Carlos Gómez-Guijarro, Georgios E. Magdis, Charles L. Steinhardt and Mikkel Stockmann, all of the Cosmic Dawn Center and the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen. Magdis is also affiliated with DTU Space, the National Space Institute of the Technical University of Denmark. Masato Onodera and Rhythm Shimakawa, both of the Subaru Telescope at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan; Daniel Ceverino of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid; Andreas Faisst of IPAC at the California Institute of Technology; Anna Gallazzi of INAF – Observatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri; Mariko Kubo of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan; Kiyoto Yabe of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe; and Johannes Zabl, of Unive Lyon at the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, also contributed. Onodera also has an affiliation with the Department of Astronomical Science at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies.


MOSFIRE (Multi-Object Spectrograph for Infrared Exploration) is a highly-efficient instrument that can take images or up to 46 simultaneous spectra. Using a sensitive state-of-the-art detector and electronics system, MOSFIRE obtains observations fainter than any other near infrared spectrograph. MOSFIRE is an excellent tool for studying complex star or galaxy fields, including distant galaxies in the early Universe, as well as star clusters in our own Galaxy.  MOSFIRE obtained first light in April 2012 and was made possible by funding provided by the National Science Foundation.


The W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes are among the most scientifically productive on Earth. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Maunakea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometers, and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. 

Some of the data presented herein were obtained at Keck Observatory, which is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation.

The authors wish to recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Maunakea has always had within the Native Hawaiian community.  We are most fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.