If Kate Whitaker had to explain her latest scientific discovery and why it's a big deal to her three children — 4, 8, and 10 — the astronomy professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst would try something like this:
“Earth is a planet and our planet goes around the sun once a year; our sun is a star, and it’s one of billions of stars in our galaxy,’” Whitaker said. “Our galaxy is one of billions or trillions of galaxies in the universe and mommy is trying to understand how these galaxies formed and evolved and change — just like how you formed and grow. So I’m using a telescope, which is like a time machine, to study that.”
Everyone got that?
Whitaker authored a study published in the journal Nature Wednesday revealing that scientists working with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope had recently discovered six galaxies that mysteriously died during the universe’s most active period of star birth. Those findings have surprised and puzzled astronomers — let alone kids or people without a degree in astronomy.
Boiling it down, Whitaker explains that the findings are all about understanding our origin. And that's why they matter.
It's not so much about where humans and the universe are going but rather, “where did we come from?” Whitaker said. “How did we get to this present day universe?”
The current universe, she explained, is “pretty boring:” there’s not a lot of active star formation. But that’s not unusual for the present. Most older galaxies were “still vigorously forming new stars, and these ones [we found] just stopped,” Whitaker said. “So why is that?”
In a NASA press release, Whitaker offered a variety of possible explanations: "Did a supermassive black hole in the galaxy's center turn on and heat up all the gas? If so, the gas could still be there, but now it's hot. Or it could have been expelled and now it's being prevented from accreting back onto the galaxy. Or did the galaxy just use it all up, and the supply is cut off?"
Hubble is an international space agreement between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The telescope is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Whitaker is excited about the latest discovery, of course. But she’s more excited about what’s still on the horizon, even if she isn’t sure what it is.
“To me, the unknown unknowns are my favorite part,” she said. “There are things you don’t know that are coming that keep coming … so now, I’m going to go write follow-up proposals so we can keep pushing and studying and trying to understand it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Latest finding from NASA's Hubble Telescope surprises scientists