Distant galaxy hints at universe's earliest stars

Астрономы нашли древнейший кислород во Вселенной

The presence of oxygen is a clear sign that there must have been even earlier generations of stars in this galaxy.

The galaxy was studied using the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (Alma), a powerful radio telescope, and and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT).

The team determined that, if the oxygen signature was from 500 million years after the Big Bang, then the first stars in that galaxy would have been born about 250 million years post-Big Bang.

When Japanese astronomers at the Osaka Sangyo University detected a whiff of oxygen in a galaxy far away, they realized that the stars in there formed 250 million years after the Big Bang, which is a very short time in cosmic time.

Using the giant ALMA telescope in Chile, researchers were able to observe the distant galaxy MACS1149-JD1 when it was just 550 million years old, a time when it contained stars that were about 300 million years old.

The study conducted by Takuya Hashimoto and his staff from the Osaka Sangyo University provides insight into the formation process of early stars and also indicates that upcoming space telescopes like the James Webb, that will substitute Hubble in orbit in early 2020, are likely to provide new insights into early star formation, says Bouwens. As this light travelled the vast cosmic distances to Earth, it became stretched by the expansion of the universe, eventually changing into the distinct millimeter-wavelength light that ALMA is specifically created to detect and study.

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The real breakthrough was the detection of oxygen in the galaxy, which is observable in the Leo constellation, though not with the naked eye. However, numerous heavier elements we take for granted today (such as carbon and oxygen) did not exist before the first stars.

MACS1149-JD1 is the most distant known galaxy with a precise distance measurement, said the researchers. That led them to the conclusion that MACS1149-JD1 formed nearly 250 million years after the Big Bang.

But when did the first galaxies form in the early epoch known as "cosmic dawn?"

By establishing the age of MACS1149-JD1, the team has effectively demonstrated the existence of early galaxies to times earlier than those where we can now directly detect them.

"Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation", said Richard Ellis, senior astronomer at UCL and co-author of the Nature paper. Within the galaxy, the team was surprised to discover faint signals of ionized oxygen that were emitted nearly 13.3 billion years ago (or 500 million years after the Big Bang). "With these new observations of MACS1149-JD1, we are getting closer to directly witnessing the birth of starlight! Since we are all made of a processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins". "It is truly remarkable that ALMA detected an emission line - the fingerprint of a particular element - at such a record-breaking distance", Zheng said.

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