The universe is gently fading into darkness according to three astronomers
who have looked at 40,000 galaxies in the neighbourhood of the Milky Way.
Research student Ben Panter and Professor Alan Heavens from Edinburgh
University’s Institute for Astronomy, and Professor Raul Jimenez of
University of Pennsylvania, USA, decoded the “fossil record” concealed in
the starlight from the galaxies to build up a detailed account of how many
young, recently-formed stars there were at different periods in the
14-billion-year existence of the universe. Their history shows that, for
billions of years, there have not been enough new stars turning on to
replace all the old stars that die and switch off. The results will be
published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on 21
August 2003.

“Our analysis confirms that the age of star formation is drawing to a
close”, says Alan Heavens. “The number of new stars being formed in the huge
sample of galaxies we studied has been in decline for around 6 billion years
– roughly since the time our own Sun came into being.”

Astronomers already had evidence that this was the case, mainly from
observing galaxies so far away that we see them as they were billions of
years ago because of the great length of time their light has taken to reach
us. Now the same story emerges strongly from the work of Panter, Heavens and
Jimenez, who for the first time approached the problem differently and used
the whole spectrum of light from an enormous number of nearby galaxies to
get a more complete picture.

Galaxies shine with the combined light of all the stars in them. Most of the
light from young stars is blue, coming from very hot massive stars. These
blue stars live fast and die young, ending their lives in supernova
explosions. When they have gone, they no longer outshine the smaller red
stars that are more long-lived. Many galaxies look reddish overall rather
than blue – a broad sign that most star formation happened long ago.

In their analysis, Panter, Heavens and Jimenez have used far more than the
simple overall colours of the galaxies, though. The spectrum observations
they used come from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the volume of data
involved was so vast, that the researchers had to develop a special lossless
data compression method, called MOPED, to allow them to analyse the sample
in a reasonable length of time, without losing accuracy.


More information about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey may be obtained from