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Old galaxies in the young Universe


More than half of all stars in the local Universe are found in massive spheroidal galaxies1, which are characterized by old stellar populations2,3 with little or no current star formation. In present models, such galaxies appear rather late in the history of the Universe as the culmination of a hierarchical merging process, in which larger galaxies are assembled through mergers of smaller precursor galaxies. But observations have not yet established how, or even when, the massive spheroidals formed2,3, nor if their seemingly sudden appearance when the Universe was about half its present age (at redshift z ≈ 1) results from a real evolutionary effect (such as a peak of mergers) or from the observational difficulty of identifying them at earlier epochs. Here we report the spectroscopic and morphological identification of four old, fully assembled, massive (1011 solar masses) spheroidal galaxies at l.6 < z < 1.9, the most distant such objects currently known. The existence of such systems when the Universe was only about one-quarter of its present age shows that the build-up of massive early-type galaxies was much faster in the early Universe than has been expected from theoretical simulations4.

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Figure 1: The individual and average spectra of the detected galaxies.
Figure 2: The detailed average spectrum of the detected galaxies. A zoom on the average spectrum (blue) compared with the synthetic spectrum19 of a 1.1-Gyr-old simple stellar population (SSP) with solar metallicity (Z = Z) and Salpeter IMF (red).
Figure 3: The average spectrum (blue) compared to a set of template spectra.
Figure 4: The morphological properties of the detected galaxies.


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This work is based on observations made at the European Southern Observatory, Paranal, Chile, and with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope obtained at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). We thank R. Somerville for information on the GOODS/CDFS mock catalogue. We are grateful to the GOODS Team for obtaining and releasing the HST and FORS2 data

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Correspondence to A. Cimatti.

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Supplementary table 1

The detected galaxies. (PDF 24 kb)

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Cimatti, A., Daddi, E., Renzini, A. et al. Old galaxies in the young Universe. Nature 430, 184–187 (2004).

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