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The formation of cluster elliptical galaxies as revealed by extensive star formation


The most massive galaxies in the present-day Universe are found to lie in the centres of rich clusters. They have old, coeval stellar populations suggesting that the bulk of their stars must have formed at early epochs in spectacular starbursts1, which should be luminous phenomena when observed at submillimetre wavelengths2. The most popular model of galaxy formation predicts that these galaxies form in proto-clusters at high-density peaks in the early Universe3. Such peaks are indicated by massive high-redshift radio galaxies4. Here we report deep submillimetre mapping of seven high-redshift radio galaxies and their environments. These data confirm not only the presence of spatially extended regions of massive star-formation activity in the radio galaxies themselves, but also in companion objects previously undetected at any wavelength. The prevalence, orientation, and inferred masses of these submillimetre companion galaxies suggest that we are witnessing the synchronous formation of the most luminous elliptical galaxies found today at the centres of rich clusters of galaxies.

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Figure 1: Continuum emission from dust in and around seven high-redshift radio galaxies.
Figure 2: Submillimetre extent of the radio galaxies.
Figure 3: Observed alignment effects.
Figure 4: Comparison with hierarchical models.


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The JCMT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre on behalf of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). J.A.S., J.S.D., I.R.S. and W.J.P. acknowledge funding from PPARC, the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust. The work of W.J.M.v.B. and M.R. was performed under the auspices of the US Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration by the University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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Stevens, J., Ivison, R., Dunlop, J. et al. The formation of cluster elliptical galaxies as revealed by extensive star formation. Nature 425, 264–267 (2003).

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