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.
As this infrared light traveled across space, the expansion of the Universe stretched it to wavelengths more than 10 times longer by the time it reached Earth and was detected by ALMA.
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. The VLT helped in studying the "spectral lines from hydrogen" and the Alma helped in studying the "spectral lines from oxygen".
What made this discovery so incredible is that the signal is believed to have been emitted 13.3bn years ago making it not only the most distant oxygen ever detected, but shows stars were forming as little as 250m years after the Big Bang. However, numerous heavier elements we take for granted today (such as carbon and oxygen) did not exist before the first stars.
In a new study set for publication tomorrow in the journal Nature, an global team of astronomers used this impressive array to observe an extremely distant galaxy called MACS1149-JD1.
"This is an exciting discovery as 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", added Dr. Nicolas Laporte, a postdoctoral researcher at University College London.
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"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", said Laporte.
After figuring out the age of the signal, the astronomers worked backwards to determine when the galaxy's first stars fired up.
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.
The maturity of the stars seen in MACS1149-JD1 raises the question of when the very first galaxies emerged from the total darkness, an epoch of astronomers romantically term "cosmic dawn". The MACS1149-JD1 observation shows galaxies must have existed before any that are now detectable.
For MACS1149-JD1 to contain substantial amounts of oxygen, many stars must have already gone through that whole life cycle.
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. Since we are all made of a processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins".
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