Published: Thu, May 17, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Oldest Oxygen Shows Earliest Stars Formed 250 Million Years After Big Bang

Oldest Oxygen Shows Earliest Stars Formed 250 Million Years After Big Bang

The universe's first stars may have formed a mere 250 million years after the big bang-hundreds of millions of years earlier than thought, according to a new study.

The study was published Wednesday in Nature, and it reported the oxygen came from MACS1149-JD1, the most distant galaxy ever observed by Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), two of the most powerful telescopes on Earth. "I was excited enough that the signal appeared in my dreams and I had difficulty sleeping that night".

'With MACS1149-JD1, we have managed to probe history beyond the limits of when we can actually detect galaxies with current facilities.

An worldwide team of researchers from University College London and Osaka Sangyo University in Japan published a paper in the journal Nature showing that stars in the MACS1149-JD1 galaxy formed 250 million years after the Big Bang.

Our current understanding of the beginning of the universe, including the initial formation of stars and galaxies, may be about to change thanks to the recent detection of oxygen in distant space. A previous estimate, based on the interaction of hydrogen with the ultraviolet radiation from the earliest stars, put the stars' age at about 180 million years after the Big Bang. After modelling the data, Hashimoto and colleagues found that the observed brightness of the galaxy correlates to a period where the onset of star formation began around 250 million years after the Universe began. The universe initially was devoid of elements such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, which were first created in the fusion furnaces of the earliest stars and then spewed into interstellar space when these stars reached their explosive deaths. The massive newborn stars in the second burst ionized the oxygen between the stars; it is those emissions that have been detected with ALMA. These atoms then permeated the Universe after those first stars died, and were incorporated into the next generation of star formation processes.

"The mature stellar population in MACS1149-JD1 implies that stars were forming back to even earlier times, beyond what we can now see with our telescopes", said Laporte.

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"Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation". Measuring that shift in frequencies reveals that the light set out 13.3 billion years ago, when the universe was just 550 million years old. This also broke their own record for finding the most distant source of oxygen. Several months later, Nicolas Laporte of University College London used ALMA to detect oxygen at 13.2 billion light-years away [4].

'We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted, period of cosmic history'.

[1] The measured redshift of Galaxy MACS1149-JD1 is z=9.11. Please refer to "Expressing the distance to remote objects" for the details. When ALMA's antennas (which range from 7 to 12 meters in diameter) are configured in different ways, the array is capable of zooming in on some of the most distant cosmic objects in the universe, as well as capturing images that are clearer than those produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. "It is truly remarkable that ALMA detected an emission line - the fingerprint of a particular element - at such a record-breaking distance".

"I was thrilled to see the signal of the distant oxygen in the ALMA data". Observations were made between March 2016 and April 2017.

Both facilities are located in Chile's Atacama desert. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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