Yesterday, the European Space Agency put out a press release on CANDELS research that has been widely covered by various media. Sometimes the scientific message gets garbled in press releases, in spite of best intentions all around. In this case, the wording of the press release is pretty good about conveying the key message (although some of the subtleties get lost). But the gorgeous picture that accompanies the release is more wrong than right. Alas, there was a bit more "artistic license" taken with the press-release artwork than there should have been, and we failed to put the brakes on before the press release went out. The pictures of the galaxies marked as "11 billion years" were not taken from the CANDELS images, and are not at the right redshift (redshift z=2.5 corresponds to a lookback time of 11 billion years). If you would like to see what the images really look like, read on.
|This is the gorgeous image that accompanied the ESA CANDELS press release. If only it were closer to the truth! The images further down in this blog post show what galaxies 11 billion years ago really look like in the CANDELS images.|
What did galaxies look like 11 billion years ago?
|Cutouts from Lee et al.|
Galaxies on the right are
forming stars rapidly.
Galaxies on the left are
We wish we could see galaxies 11 billion years ago with the sort of clarity shown on the press-release image, but unfortunately even with Hubble we can't see that level of detail. To the extent that we can distinguish detail they look (a) smaller and (b) generally bluer, and (c) less well-ordered than present-day galaxies.
So -- yes we can see spheroids and disks emerging as separate sequences -- but it is not the case that the galaxies look like their present-day counterparts, which is the impression that you get from looking at the press-release image. Arjen van der Wel's quote in the press release that they look "remarkably mature" is reasonable when you consider that they might have all looked like train-wreck mergers-in-process. But some of the news stories based on the press release are taking that to mean they are completely mature, which is certainly not the case.
|Illustration of the morphologies of massive galaxies at redshift z~2 using CANDELS cutouts from Wang et al. (2012). The upper-left insert color codes galaxies on the same axis scale, with blue being the star-forming galaxies and red being the less-star-forming galaxies. You can easily see that the less-star-forming ones tend to look more spheroidal.|
The light reaching us from galaxies at a redshift z=2.5 took about 11 billion years to get here. So we are looking back in time to when the universe was only about 2.7 billion years old. Below and to the right are some figures from some recent papers by CANDELS and other teams that show images of galaxies at about this redshift. Perhaps this gives a more accurate impression of what we can say and can't say about the comparison between nearby galaxies and their distant progenitors.
|A montage of "Milky-Way progenitor" candidates from the CANDELS images put together by Pieter van Dokkum and the 3D-HST team.|