An worldwide team of astronomers has used observations from ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to determine that star formation in the gravitationally lensed galaxy MACS1149-JD1 started only 250 million years after the Big Bang. 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). This discovery, reported in the journal Nature, also represents the most distant oxygen ever detected in the Universe. 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.
"It turns out that this galaxy after only 500 million years after its origin was filled with Mature stars".
The study authors conclude "it may be possible to detect such early episodes of star formation in similar galaxies with future telescopes".
The team, led by astronomers at University College London in the United Kingdom and Osaka Sangyo University in Japan, detected a very faint glow emitted by ionized oxygen in MACS1149-JD1. Previously, astronomers due to limitations in technology only researched lights in the MACS1149-JD1, but with the help of high-precision telescopes, they were able to prove that the most remote from Earth, the galaxy, there are traces of oxygen. However, numerous heavier elements we take for granted today (such as carbon and oxygen) did not exist before the first stars. "This detection pushes back the frontiers of the observable Universe".
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After figuring out the age of the signal, the astronomers worked backwards to determine when the galaxy's first stars fired up.
The approximate distance of the galaxy in the study, known as the MACS1149-JD1from that of ours was measured using the "Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (Alma), and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT)".
"This has very exciting implications for finding "cosmic dawn" when the first galaxies emerged", he added. But for the galaxy to have enough oxygen to be visible, it must have been creating stars for around 250 million years before that, making it one of the earliest known star-producing galaxies.
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". By establishing the age of MACS1149-JD1, the team has effectively demonstrated that galaxies existed earlier than those we can now directly detect. With these new observations of MACS1149-JD1, we are getting closer to directly witnessing the birth of starlight!