Research

First stars formed 250 million years after Big Bang

First stars formed 250 million years after Big Bang

The presence of oxygen is important because it must have come from an even older generation of stars that have completed their life cycle.

With the help of the Atacama large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, astronomers have detected the earliest signs of oxygen (red) distributed in the galaxy MACS1149-JD1.

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. Basic elements like oxygen, carbon and nitrogen weren't very common until the first stars had fired up, burnt out and exploded. In 2016, Akio Inoue at Osaka Sangyo University and his colleagues used ALMA to find a signal of oxygen emitted 13.1 billion years ago. The team then reconstructed the star formation history in the galaxy using infrared data taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The results will appear in the journal Nature on 17 May 2018. 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.

"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.

"I was thrilled to see the signal of the distant oxygen in the ALMA data".

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"With these observations, we are pushing back the limit of the observable universe and, therefore, we are coming closer to the cosmic dawn". The distance to the galaxy determined from this observation is consistent with the distance from the oxygen observation. MACS1149-JD1 is thus the most distant galaxy ever observed by ALMA of the VLT and the origin of the most distant oxygen ever observed by any instrument. They found that the observed brightness of the galaxy is well-explained by a model where the onset of star formation corresponds to only 250 million years after the Universe began.

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.

Researchers think that the earliest stars in the Universe were built in areas with a very high density of matter, even though comprehension of this phenomenon is not yet well-defined.

"Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the holy grail of cosmology and galaxy formation", said Richard Ellis, co-author of the paper. "It is truly remarkable that ALMA detected an emission line - the fingerprint of a particular element - at such a record-breaking distance". Whether MACS1149-JD1 is just an outlier or the tip of an iceberg will have to wait for more observations.


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