Stars in a galaxy far, far away formed just 250 million years after the birth of the universe - earlier than any others known, British-led astronomers have found. That led them to the conclusion that MACS1149-JD1 formed nearly 250 million years after the Big Bang.
In a new study set for publication tomorrow in the journal Nature, an global team of astronomers used this impressive array to observe an extremely distant galaxy called MACS1149-JD1. An instance of such an upcoming technology is the James Webb Space Observatory that would get launched in the year 2020.
This mission, the successor to Hubble, will carry an huge mirror and instruments that are designed specifically to detect the glow coming from the very first population of stars.
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These facilities studied spectral lines from hydrogen - in the case of the VLT - and from oxygen - in the case of Alma. The scientists learned that as the universe expanded, these emissions shifted to much-extended wavelengths.
The group derived that the signal was produced 13.3 billion years ago (or 500 million years after the Big Bang), making it the most distant oxygen at any point distinguished by any telescope .
"But we have a clever trick that tells us how old the stars are already at that time in this galaxy".
To determine when these earlier stars were formed, the team used infrared data taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope and discovered that the observed brightness of the galaxy is well-explained by a model where the onset of star formation corresponds to only 250m years after the universe began.
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'We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted, period of cosmic history'. At the end of their lives, the stars exploded, spreading those elements through space.
Soon after the Big Bang, there was no oxygen in the universe, but the fusion processes of the first stars released it when they began to die.
Ellis said that the object's horizon is known as Redshift 9.1. "We think it was a gradual event and so clearly it is going to take statistics to work out exactly when it happened". Now, the two teams merged into one and achieved this new record. "Sadly, we don't yet have the clinching redshifts for these objects". Instead, ALMA, which is located in the high-and-dry Atacama Desert of northern Chile, is a radio telescope made up of 66 high-precision antennas that operate in flawless harmony.
The real breakthrough was the detection of oxygen in the galaxy, which is observable in the Leo constellation, though not with the naked eye. One question the scientists would like to answer is whether this galaxy has a super-massive black hole at its core.
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"If we could demonstrate there is a black hole here that would be fantastic", commented UCL team-member Dr Nicolas Laporte. Here, the oxygen distribution detected with ALMA is depicted in green.