First stars made after Big Bang identified

Distant galaxy hints at universe's earliest stars

Bowens points out that it is still uncertain if the star activity observed in MACS1149-JD1 also took place in different parts of the early Universe but he claims that the finding "will certainly boost similar studies of other galaxies".

In 2016 and 2017, a team of astronomers took another look using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a collection of 64 radio telescopes in Chile.

Scientists calculated that the galaxy's stars must have formed 250 million years earlier.

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.

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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 discovery provides the strongest evidence yet that stars in the fledgling universe started forming earlier than previously thought - when it was less than 2 percent its current age. 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). The results will appear in the journal Nature on 17 May 2018. 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. According to Takuya Hashimoto, representing the Japanese University of Osaka, this invention allows to significantly extend the boundary of the Universe studied by scientists. "This detection pushes back the frontiers of the observable Universe".

"We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted, period of cosmic history!" The distance to the galaxy determined from this observation is consistent with the distance from the oxygen observation.

MACS1149-JD1 is the most distant known galaxy with a precise distance measurement, said the researchers. They found that the observed brightness of the galaxy is well-explained by a model where the onset of star formation corresponds to only 250 million years after the Universe began. The astronomers suggest that the first burst of star formation blew the gas away from the galaxy, which would suppress the star formation for a time.

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. "It is truly remarkable that ALMA detected an emission line - the fingerprint of a particular element - at such a record-breaking distance", Zheng said.

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