Astronomers find stars forming just 250 million years after Big Bang

17 May, 2018, 04:38 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • This image shows the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 taken with the NASA  ESA Hubble Space Telescope the inset image is the gravitationally lensed galaxy MACS1149-JD1 seen as it was 13.28 billion years ago and observed with ALMA. Here the oxygen distri

Astronomers using some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth have found evidence that stars were forming incredibly early on in the life of the Universe - just 250 million years after the Big Bang, well before the proverbial dust had settled.

The galaxy, MACS1149-JD1, is 13.28 billion light years away and contains the most distant detected source of oxygen. "I was excited enough that the signal appeared in my dreams and I had difficulty sleeping that night".

After that, objects in the Universe become progressively easier to see, and it's one of these that was the focus of an global team of astronomers, led by Takuya Hashimoto, an astronomer at Osaka Sangyo University and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. This is the first time that astronomers have detected stars that are that old.

The stars that researchers observed were already mature stars leading them to conclude that there may have been stars before this point. The universe initially was devoid of elements such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, which were first created in the fusion furnaces of the earliest stars and then spewed into interstellar space when these stars reached their explosive deaths. Here, the oxygen distribution detected with ALMA is depicted in red. The scientists viewed the galaxy, called MACS1149-JD1, as it existed roughly 550 million years after the Big Bang, which gave rise to the universe about 13.8 billion years ago.

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.

"Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the "Holy Grail" of cosmology and galaxy formation", said Richard Ellis, an astrophysicist at University College London and co-author on the paper.

This means that stars were forming earlier than we can see with our telescopes - but also that we are closer to finding what is known as the cosmic dawn, when the very first stars emerged. Several months later, Nicolas Laporte of University College London used ALMA to detect oxygen at 13.2 billion light-years away [4]. This reflects both the competitive and collaborative nature of forefront of scientific research.

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'We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted, period of cosmic history'.

The detection of oxygen in MACS1149-JD1 was particularly instructive. A calculation based on the latest cosmological parameters measured with Planck (H0=67.3 km/s/Mpc, Ωm=0.315, Λ=0.685: Planck 2013 Results) yields the distance of 13.28 billion light-years.

"This extremely distant, extremely young galaxy has a remarkable chemical maturity to it", said Wei Zheng, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who led the discovery of this galaxy with the Hubble Space Telescope and estimated its distance. But the precision of the distance measurement with HST low resolution spectroscopy is significantly lower than that of ALMA's measurement using a single emission line from atoms.

"I was thrilled to see the signal of the distant oxygen in the ALMA data", says Hashimoto. Observations were made between March 2016 and April 2017.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an global astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under a cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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