A star is born as a galaxy dies, 10m years ago

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These are images of stars dying in a nearby galaxy - and in the process, providing the building blocks for new stars and planets. They may also give clues about how the earliest galaxies in the universe were formed.

Using radiotelescopes distributed around the UK, British astronomers have built up the pictures of M82, a "starburst" galaxy just 10 million light years away in which stars have formed at an enormous rate but have now reached the end of their lives and become supernovae.

The study of supernovae, which burn at a terrific rate before throwing off most of their mass in a cosmic explosion, is important for the study of galaxy formation, according to Tom Muxlow, who led the research at Jodrell Bank for the University of Manchester.

Dr Muxlow said: "As a galaxy forms there's a burst of star formation in which a vast number of stars are created. We're trying to understand how that occurs."

"Starburst" galaxies like M82 are uncommon among nearby galaxies, but when the universe was only about a billion years old - less than a tenth of its present age - most galaxies were undergoing rapid bursts of star formation like this.

So far the team from Manchester has identified the remnants of 50 supernovae which have exploded in the past 1,000 years.

"We would like to understand the rate and period over which stars form," said Dr Muxlow.

By combining the latest data with pictures from the Hubble Deep Field space telescope, which shows very early galaxy formation, they could build a clear idea of the true age and size of the universe.