Published: Thu, May 17, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Oxygen presence in distant galaxy sheds light on early universe

Oxygen presence in distant galaxy sheds light on early universe

Here, the oxygen distribution detected with ALMA is depicted in red. 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).

Titled "The onset of star formation 250 million years after the Big Bang", the paper, involving a large global team of researchers, was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

After detecting a whiff of oxygen, astronomers have determined that stars in a faraway galaxy formed 250 million years after the Big Bang - a rather short time in cosmic terms - in a finding that sheds light on conditions in the early universe.

For MACS1149-JD1 to contain substantial amounts of oxygen, many stars must have already gone through that whole life cycle.

The fact that it was an oxygen line is significant: No oxygen was produced in the big bang; it was formed later when hydrogen gas coalesced into the first generation of stars and fusion reactions in their cores forged hydrogen into oxygen and other elements. According to Takuya Hashimoto, representing the Japanese University of Osaka, this invention allows to significantly extend the boundary of the Universe studied by scientists.

Nicolas Laporte, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom said, "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".

The researchers confirmed the distance of the galaxy with observations from ground-based telescopes in Chile and reconstructed the earlier history of MACS1149-JD1 using infrared data from orbiting telescopes. This makes MACS1149-JD1 the most distant galaxy with a precise distance measurement.

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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".

The study marked another step forward as scientists hunt for evidence of the first stars and galaxies that emerged from what had been total darkness in the aftermath of the Big Bang, a time sometimes called "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.

Bouwens emphasised that it is still not clear whether the stellar activity detected in MACS1149-JD1 occurred in other regions in the early Universe, but he added that the discovery will spur similar studies of other galaxies.

"With these new observations of MACS1149-JD1 we are getting closer to directly witnessing the birth of starlight!" said Richard Ellis, senior astronomer at UCL and co-author of the paper in a statement. "Since we are all made of a processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins".

"We are eager to find oxygen in even farther parts of the Universe and expand the horizon of human knowledge".

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