A team of scientists has created a “photo album” of over 70,000 galaxies that charts their rise and fall over a period spanning 12 billion years — more than 90 percent of the universe’s age. The researchers, associated with the FourStar Galaxy Evolution Survey (ZFOURGE), have published their findings in the latest edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

The images, captured over a period of 45 nights using the 6.5 meter Baade Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, reveal galaxies that existed when the universe was just 1.3 billion years old. Only a handful of these galaxies had previously been discovered.

“Perhaps the most surprising result is that galaxies in the young universe appear as diverse as they are today,” lead author Caroline Straatman, a recent graduate of Leiden University in the Netherlands, said in a statement Tuesday. “The fact that we see young galaxies in the distant universe that have already shut down star formation is remarkable.”

122904_web A comparison of visualizing galaxies with and without ZFOURGE. Photo: Texas A&M University

In addition to providing enough data to create a deep 3D map showing the distribution and diversity of galaxies in the observable universe, the information gathered by ZFOURGE is also giving scientists a glimpse into what our own galaxy was like in its youth, and what it’s likely to be billions of years from now.

For instance, some 10 billion years ago, galaxies similar to the Milky Way were much smaller, but were still forming stars 30 times faster than they are today.

In addition, the images also reveal an ancient galaxy cluster — a densely populated “galaxy city” formed when the universe was just 3 billion years old.

“ZFOURGE is providing us with a highly complete and reliable census of the evolving galaxy population, and is already helping us to address questions like: How did galaxies grow with time? When did they form their stars and develop into the spectacular structures that we see in the present-day universe?” co-author Ryan Quadri from Texas A&M University said in the statement.