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Astronomers’ new toy finds starry baby boom

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Astronomers using a sensitive new instrument have lifted a dusty veil shrouding the universe to reveal galaxies forming at a furious pace much deeper in space and far earlier in time than expected.

A pair of studies published Thursday in the journal Nature describe developing "starburst" galaxies observed for the first time in patches of space at least 11 billion light-years from Earth.The galaxies were detected indirectly, by energy emissions. They cannot be seen by optical telescopes because they are camouflaged by dust that is characteristic of galaxies in their early stages of development.

Researchers say the discoveries by astronomers at the University of Edinburgh Royal Observatory in Scotland and the University of Hawaii show that sections of the deep sky that had appeared empty actually might be crammed with thousands of these bright objects, each of which might contain billions of hot, young stars. In fact, these starburst galaxies may be as common as all of the space objects spotted by optical telescopes.

The discoveries demonstrate that astronomers may have been missing a vital, formative period in the history of the universe.

The deeper astronomers peer into space, the farther back in time they are looking. It takes so long for light from a star to reach Earth that astronomers peering toward the far edges of space are seeing objects as they were billions of years ago.

The findings may prompt astronomers to rewrite some early chapters in the story of the universe.