Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

Distant galaxy opens door to 'uncharted period of cosmic history'

This image shows the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 taken with the NASA  ESA Hubble Space Telescope the inset image is the gravitationally lensed galaxy MACS1149-JD1 seen as it was 13.28 billion years ago and observed with ALMA. Here the oxygen distri Distant galaxy opens door to 'uncharted period of cosmic history'
Elijah Vega | 17 May, 2018, 09:44

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.

Astronomers have observed a galaxy a very distant 13.28 billion lightyears away, zooming in closer than ever to the "cosmic dawn" of the Universe's first stars, they said Wednesday.

Titled "The onset of star formation 250 million years after the Big Bang", the paper, involving a large worldwide team of researchers, was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature. As this infrared light traversed space, the extension of the Universe extended it to wavelengths in excess of ten times longer when it achieved Earth and was identified by ALMA. The presence of oxygen is a clear sign that there must have been even earlier generations of stars in this galaxy. "This detection pushes back the frontiers of the observable universe".

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).

Along with the ancient oxygen signal, the VLT also picked up a weaker signal of hydrogen emission which is consistent with the distance from the oxygen observation.

MACS1149-JD1 is the most distant known galaxy with a precise distance measurement, said the researchers.

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"This galaxy is seen at a time when the Universe was only 500 million years old and yet it already has a population of mature stars", explains Nicolas Laporte, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom and second author of the new paper. The cloud of dust and gas left over from the Big Bang would have been mostly hydrogen in the early days, but supernovae from the deaths of the first stars would have spread elements like oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. The recognition of oxygen in MACS1149-JD1 demonstrates that these prior ages of stars had been now shaped and ousted oxygen by only 500 million years after the start of the Universe.

The study authors conclude "it may be possible to detect such early episodes of star formation in similar galaxies with future telescopes". To find out, the team reconstructed the earlier history of MACS1149-JD1 using infrared data taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope.

By detecting the most distant oxygen ever found, astronomers have shown that the first stars formed unexpectedly early.

One of the most burning questions on astronomers" minds is: "When did the first galaxies emerge from total darkness?

"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".

Co-author Professor Richard Ellis, also from UCL, said: "Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation". Whether MACS1149-JD1 is just an outlier or the tip of an iceberg will have to wait for more observations. Here, the oxygen distribution detected with ALMA is depicted in red. 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. Several months later, Nicolas Laporte of University College London used ALMA to detect oxygen 13.2 billion years ago.

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