Star formation underway 250 million years after Big Bang

Old oxygen sheds new light on the beginning of the universe

To find out when the stars in MACS1149-JD1 started shining, Hashimoto's team used infrared data from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to determine the observed brightness of the galaxy was well explained by a model in which the onset of star formation was well underway just 250 million years after the Big Bang. Here, the oxygen distribution detected with ALMA is depicted in green.

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 maturity of the stars seen in MACS1149-JD1 raises the question of when the very first galaxies emerged from total darkness, an epoch astronomers call 'cosmic dawn'.

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. It's this light signal that ALMA has picked up some 13 billion years later, although in that time the expansion of the universe has stretched the light into the millimeter wavelength.

"I was thrilled to see the signal of the distant oxygen in the ALMA data", says Takuya Hashimoto, the lead author of the new paper and a researcher at both Osaka Sangyo University and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. By establishing the age of MACS1149-JD1, the team has effectively demonstrated that galaxies existed earlier than those we can now directly detect.

Hailing from a galaxy known as MACS1149-JD1, the oxygen signature dates back to about 500 million years after the Big Bang.

Note, astronomers were able to prove that the stars in MACS1149-JD1 was formed only after 250 million years after the Big Bang, which was an absolute record for the age of the heavenly bodies.

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Oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen will only form in the universe after stars first fusion and then die, spewing these elements into interstellar space.

The real breakthrough was the detection of oxygen in the galaxy, which is observable in the Leo constellation, though not with the naked eye.

"We have for the first time observed the very early stage of star formation in the universe".

"With MACS1149-JD1, we have managed to probe history beyond the limits of when we can actually detect galaxies with current facilities". The MACS1149-JD1 observation shows galaxies must have existed before any that are now detectable.

"Prior to our study, there were only theoretical predictions of the earliest star formation".

Richard Ellis, a senior astronomer at UCL and co-author of the paper, concludes: "Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation". 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".

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