ALMA Finds Most-Distant Oxygen in the Universe

Distant galaxy hints at universe's earliest stars

The stars pumping out oxygen in MACS1149-JD1 are calculated to be approximately 13.3 billion years old, so around 500 million years after the Big Bang, but naturally to reach a stage of emitting oxygen they must have formed much earlier - about 250 million years earlier, say the worldwide team of astronomers who spotted them.

The discovery of the oldest oxygen signal ever detected by any telescope is a tantalising one, as the very first stars are expected to be composed mainly of the lightest elements that were around in the Universe at that time; hydrogen and helium.

"Oxygen is only created in stars and then released into the gas clouds in galaxies when those stars die", said a UCL statement.

Our current understanding of the beginning of the universe, including the initial formation of stars and galaxies, may be about to change thanks to the recent detection of oxygen in distant space. This discovery also represents the most distant oxygen ever detected in the Universe and the most distant galaxy ever observed by ALMA or the VLT. In addition, a weaker signal of neutral hydrogen emissions was independently found with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope; the distance determined from this observation is consistent with the distance based on the oxygen observation.

Its faint light has taken so long to reach Earth that its journey began just 500 million years after the Big Bang - the cataclysmic event that brought the cosmos into being. MACS1149-JD1 is the most distant galaxy with a precise distance measurement.

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 romantically term "cosmic dawn".

The researchers confirmed the distance of the galaxy with observations from ground-based telescopes in Chile and reconstructed the earlier history of MACS1149-JD1 using infrared data from orbiting telescopes.

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"Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the "Holy Grail" of cosmology and galaxy formation", said Richard Ellis, an astrophysicist at University College London and co-author on the paper.

[1] ALMA has set the record for detecting the most distant oxygen several times.

'There is renewed optimism we are getting closer and closer to witnessing directly the birth of starlight.

"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". In 2016, Akio Inoue at Osaka Sangyo University and his colleagues found the signal of oxygen at 13.1 billion light-years away with ALMA.

'Since we are all made of processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins'. Several months later, Nicolas Laporte of University College London used ALMA to detect oxygen at 13.2 billion light-years away. Now, the two teams combined their efforts and achieved this new record, which corresponds to a redshift of 9.1. Whether MACS1149-JD1 is just an outlier or the tip of an iceberg will have to wait for more observations.

[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).

Why is oxygen so significant?

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