Stars formed only 250 million years after the Big Bang

Hubble and ALMA image of MACS J1149.5+2223

Hubble and ALMA image of MACS J1149.5+2223

Star cluster MACS1149-JD1 is the most remote object in space, the distance to which they are able to determine.

It's not the first time that ALMA has found distant sources of oxygen: The record has been broken many times. As these light waves travelled through space, they got stretched as the universe expanded and the wavelength increased to millimeter-wavelength light that is detectable with ALMA.

For a period after the Big Bang, there was no oxygen in the Universe; it was made by the combination procedures of the primary stars and afterward discharged when these stars kicked the bucket. This makes MACS1149-JD1 the most distant galaxy with a precise distance measurement and the most distant galaxy ever observed with ALMA or the VLT. While this ALMA study has indirectly dated that time to 250 million years after the Big Bang, the earliest direct detection was announced earlier this year, in the form of an ionized hydrogen signature hailing from when our universe was a mere 180 million years old.

The researchers inferred that the signal was emitted 13.3 billion years ago (or 500 million years after the Big Bang), making it the most distant oxygen ever detected by any telescope.

The light coming from MACS1149-JD1 had to travel 13.28 billion light years to reach Earth. "I was quite excited and I barely slept that night", explains Takuya Hashimoto of the National astronomical Observatory of Japan, the lead author of the study.

"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", says Nicolas Laporte, an astronomer on the research team. And since stars generate oxygen during their initial fusion, but only release it when they die out, it would mean that the universe already had stars that lived full lives this early in cosmic history.

In addition, ALMA also detected a weaker signal of hydrogen emission was also detected by ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). To find out, the team reconstructed the earlier history of MACS1149-JD1 using infrared data taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope.

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'. At that time, the universe was 2% of its current age.

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". There is renewed optimism we are getting closer and closer to witnessing directly the birth of starlight. "Since we are all made of processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins".

Researchers think that the earliest stars in the Universe were built in areas with a very high density of matter, even though comprehension of this phenomenon is not yet well-defined.

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