May 24, 2018

First stars that formed after Big Bang identified

18 May 2018, 03:40 | Lucia Cruz

Distant galaxy hints at universe's earliest stars

This image shows the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 the inset image is the distant galaxy MACS1149-JD1 with the oxygen distribution depicted in red. Image ALMA NASA  ESA HST W. Zheng

The new details revealed that light from a galaxy dubbed MACS1149-JD1 was 13.28 billion lightyears old, an worldwide team reported in the scientific journal Nature.

The results demonstrate the usefulness of ALMA as a tool for measuring the red shift of distant galaxies, Rychard Bouwens, an astrophysicist at Leiden University, said in another article in Nature. "We are eager to find oxygen in even farther parts of the universe and expand the horizon of human knowledge", said Takuya Hashimoto, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Osaka Sangyo University. This discovery, reported in the journal Nature, also represents the most distant oxygen ever detected in the Universe. 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. When that light was produced in MACS1149-JD1 it was in the infrared, but during its billions of years journeying to Earth, the expansion of the universe stretched it out to the microwave frequencies that ALMA is sensitive to.

In this composite image, a galaxy cluster observed by the Hubble Space Telescope is shown along with a faint member (inset) known as MACS1149-JD1 that was observed by the ALMA instrument.

There is a growing body of evidence now suggesting that the first stars began to ignite around perhaps 200 million years after the Big Bang, so this puts the progenitors of this oxygen there or thereabouts.

The detection of oxygen at MACS1149-JD1 meant that these earlier generations of stars had been already formed and were expelling oxygen just 500m years after the beginning of the universe.

In addition to the glow from oxygen picked up by ALMA, a weaker signal of hydrogen emission was also detected by VLT. In 2016, a team led by Akio Inoue, co-author of the paper and an associate physics professor at Osaka Sangyo University, spotted signs 13.1 billion light years.

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Now, thanks to data from the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA) and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) - both in Chile - they are a step closer.

"Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation", said co-author Richard Ellis, an astronomer at University College London, in a press release.

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. The MACS1149-JD1 observation shows galaxies must have existed before any that are now detectable. Whether MACS1149-JD1 is just an outlier or the tip of an iceberg will have to wait for more observations. "Since we are all made of a processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins".

[1] The measured redshift of galaxy MACS1149-JD1 is z=9.11.

[2] The galaxy GN-z11 is thought to be located 13.4 billion light-years away based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

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