May 21, 2018

Astroboffins find most distant source of oxygen in the universe

18 May 2018, 03:41 | Kevin Scott

Researchers Close In On Birthdate of First Stars

Distant galaxy hints at universe's earliest stars

All the large galaxies we see in the nearby Universe have these central giants that are millions of times the mass of our Sun; and it is an interesting debate as to how early this phenomenon emerged in cosmic history. Now, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have detected the most distant - and hence, earliest - signature of oxygen, in a galaxy 13.28 billion light-years away. Months later, another team led by Nicholas Laporte, co-author of the paper and a research fellow at the University of College London, found oxygen at 13.2 billion light years. 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 work of Takuya Hashimoto and his group at Osaka Sangyo University sheds light on the formation of the first stars and suggests that future telescopes - such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the Hubble 'scope in orbit starting in 2020 - could find new evidence on the formation of first-generation stars, Bouwens said. The observed brightness of the galaxy is well explained by a model where the onset of star formation corresponds to a time only 250 million years after the Universe began. Here, the oxygen distribution detected with ALMA is depicted in green.

"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", says Nicolas Laporte, an astronomer on the research team.

"Oxygen is only created in stars and then released into the gas clouds in galaxies when those stars die", said a UCL statement.

Stars in a galaxy far, far away formed just 250 million years after the birth of the universe - earlier than any others known, British-led astronomers have found.

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The distance of the faraway galaxy was calculated using ground-based telescopes in Chile and infrared data from orbiting telescopes, to reconstruct the early history of MACS1149-JD1. "It is truly remarkable that ALMA detected an emission line - the fingerprint of a particular element - at such a record-breaking distance", said Wei Zheng, co-author of the paper and an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University.

This means astronomers were looking at the galaxy just 500 million years after the Big Bang - when the Universe was about 3.5 percent of its current age.

Scientists have determined this measurement based on lines in the ionized oxygen spectra, rather than employing ionized carbon, which is more commonly used when scanning faraway space objects.

Cosmic Dawn is the name given to that time when the very first stars lit up the pitch-black universe. The MACS1149-JD1 observation shows galaxies must have existed before any that are now detectable.

[1] The measured redshift of galaxy MACS1149-JD1 is z=9.11. "With these new observations of MACS1149-JD1 we are getting closer to directly witnessing the birth of starlight".

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