Astronomers from U. de Chile detect smog in distant galaxy

The same carbon monoxide found in the skies over large cities has been discovered by a team of Chilean scientists in an unusual galaxy.

A Chilean astronomy team has succeeded in detecting a compound in the Universe very common in our daily lives on Earth, but quite rare in dwarf galaxies.

It’s carbon monoxide – a major component of smog – and scientists from Universidad de Chile (UC) have documented its presence in the galaxy WLM for the very first time.

The study, published in the March edition of the journal Nature, was conducted by UC astronomy professor Mónica Rubio and her partner Celia Verdugo, a masters student at the UC Department of Astronomy.

The new finding was discovered using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope located nearly 17,000 feet (5,100 meters) above sea level in the Atacama Desert. APEX uses an array of extremely sensitive thermometers – known as bolometers – to detect submillimetre light in the distant Universe.

In their study, «Carbon monoxide in clouds at low metallicity in the dwarf irregular galaxy WLM», Rubio and Verdugo unveiled the presence of carbon monoxide molecules in a unique dwarf galaxy. Their pioneering discovery will contribute to a greater understanding of how stars were formed during the Big Bang.

Dr. Rubio explained in a press release that the detected carbon monoxide is the same molecule that makes up the smog found in the skies of major cities. The new finding is critical, she said, because «if there is no carbon monoxide, we don’t know if there is hydrogen, which is indispensable for the formation of stars in galaxies like ours.»

The researcher also pointed out that understanding the process of star creation is “critical to understanding the evolution of the universe. We always doubted if these galaxies had carbon dioxide or not because they either had very low levels of the needed ingredients or because we did didn’t have the right tools to detect it, but with APEX we succeeded.»

In the coming year, Rubio will take her investigation of the irregularities of the WLM galaxy to the new ALMA observatory in northern Chile. Her project was chosen out of 1,133 proposals from the scientific community seeking to gain research time at ALMA.

«We will study in greater detail the discovery of carbon monoxide in this galaxy in order to continue to better understand the process of star formation in complex scenarios like this one, as it was at the beginning of our universe,» Rubio said.