Science

Astronomers have found the oldest oxygen in the Universe

Astronomers have found the oldest oxygen in the Universe

That gives us an indication of how much earlier in the history of the Universe - which we can't now probe with our telescopes - that this object actually formed.

As this infrared light traveled across space, the expansion of the Universe stretched it to wavelengths more than 10 times longer by the time it reached Earth and was detected by ALMA. The recognition of oxygen in MACS1149-JD1 demonstrates that these prior ages of stars had been now shaped and ousted oxygen by only 500 million years after the start of the Universe.

"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", said Laporte. In addition, this galaxy is the most distant space object in which traces of oxygen.

"You could map the distribution of oxygen with Alma and in the case of a black hole - because you have a high radiation field associated with the black hole - then this oxygen should be very compact".

"I was thrilled to see the signal ... in the ALMA data", said Takuya Hashimoto, a researcher at both Osaka Sangyo University and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature.

For MACS1149-JD1 to contain substantial amounts of oxygen, many stars must have already gone through that whole life cycle.

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This is not only the most distant detection of oxygen ever made by any telescope, but more importantly, the discovery of the ancient oxygen serves as clear evidence that stars began forming just 250 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was less than 2 percent its current age.

The galaxy was studied using the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (Alma), a powerful radio telescope, and and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT). "It is truly remarkable that ALMA detected an emission line - the fingerprint of a particular element - at such a record-breaking distance", said Wei Zheng, co-author of the paper and an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University. 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).

Oxygen is only created by nuclear processes within stars, to be released into gas clouds when they die.

Mystery surrounds the time the first galaxies emerged from total darkness, an epoch known as the "cosmic dawn". Ellis added, "But we have a clever trick that tells us how old the stars are already at that time in this galaxy".

Professor Ellis said: "Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the "Holy Grail" of cosmology and galaxy formation". "With these new observations of MACS1149-JD1, we are getting closer to directly witnessing the birth of starlight!"

[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). "Since we are all made of processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins".


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