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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June, 2003, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
Spaceman on a galaxy quest

By Brady Haran
BBC News Online

Dr Bryn Jones sits at a small desk in room C18 at the University of Nottingham's astronomy department.

Bryn Jones

Surrounded by papers, two calculators and a small box of tapes, the Welshman is helping unlock the secrets of the Universe.

Dr Jones is an expert on galaxies - unimaginably massive collections of stars which lie millions of light-years away.

His latest discovery, made in collaboration with a team of researchers across the world, is a new type of galaxy dubbed an "ultra-compact dwarf".

Smaller than typical galaxies, they appear to have been violently stripped of outlying stars by gravitational forces, leaving them with just tens of millions of stars.

By comparison, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is believed to contain 100,000 million stars and span some 100,000 light-years.

Dr Bryn Jones in his office
Dr Jones explores the Universe from his desk in Nottingham
The discovery of ultra-compact dwarfs, published recently in the prestigious science journal Nature, involved the use of telescopes in Hawaii, Australia, Chile and Hubble Space Telescope.

Since completing his PhD more than a decade ago, it could be said Dr Jones's focus has been expanding like the Universe itself.

As he worked at various universities in Cambridge, Cardiff, Bristol and Nottingham, he has researched a range of astronomical features.

His early work involved the chemical composition of stars within the Milky Way, but in recent years his focus has turned to galaxies.

In particular he has specialised in dwarf galaxies, which led to the recent discovery of ultra-compact dwarfs.

Spiral galaxy
Galaxies follow the same laws of physics like anything here on Earth
Dr Bryn Jones

Dr Jones's passion for this niche area is apparent, and he believes it will play a vital role in understanding the mysteries of the Universe.

"There are more dwarf galaxies than any other kind of galaxy, so it is obvious they are an important part of galaxy formation.

"As we better understand these dwarf galaxies, it will lead to better understanding of how all galaxies are formed, and ultimately how our solar system and Earth formed."

On the downside, distant dwarf galaxies do not look as "pretty" as the spectacular spiral galaxies many people are familiar with.

Dr Jones says: "It's true we don't get to have the nice pretty pictures that you get with bigger galaxies, but that is not important."

And it obviously did not matter to those in charge of the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits the Earth.

They allocated precious time to the study despite being overwhelmed with requests for use of the space telescope by a ratio of 7:1.

Fornax Cluster
The ultra-compact dwarf galaxies were found in an area known as the Fornax Cluster

It was Hubble's crystal clear view from above the Earth's atmosphere which unlocked the mysteries of ultra-compact dwarf galaxies.

So how does an astronomer discuss such a specialty with his family and friends?

Dr Jones says with a smile: "I tend not to talk about it too much... I don't want to sound obsessed.

"But these (galaxies) really are amazing things.

"They are just colossal and beyond what a human may comprehend, yet we can understand them and study them because they follow the same laws of physics like anything here on Earth."

In Pictures: Galactic observer
12 Jun 03  |  Photo Gallery
Universe's smallest galaxies discovered
28 May 03  |  Bristol/Somerset
Hubble's deep view shows cosmic violence
08 May 03  |  Science/Nature

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