Stars formed only 250 million years after the Big Bang

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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.

An global team of researchers from University College London and Osaka Sangyo University in Japan published a paper in the journal Nature showing that stars in the MACS1149-JD1 galaxy formed 250 million years after the Big Bang. We have a rough idea about what was going on, but it's insanely far away and any radiation is hard for our instrumentation to detect, particularly before the Universe was about 300 million years old.

This discovery also represents the most distant galaxy ever observed by the observatories that studied it; ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) - an array that has already set the record for detecting the most distant oxygen several times before.

By establishing the age of MACS1149-JD1, the team has effectively demonstrated the existence of early galaxies to times earlier than those where we can now directly detect them.

"I was thrilled to see the signal of the distant oxygen in the ALMA data", says Takuya Hashimoto, the lead author of the new paper and a researcher at both Osaka Sangyo University and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. The distance to the galaxy determined from this observation is consistent with the distance from the oxygen observation. "This detection pushes back the frontiers of the observable Universe". But the precision of that distance measurement with is significantly lower than that of MACS1149-JD1 which is based on the use of two independent emission lines from atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. Because in the early Universe, there was none. There they became superheated and were ionized by the light and radiation from massive stars.

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According to the study, the presence of oxygen shows that there were earlier generations of mature stars in this galaxy, dating before that 500-million-year mark.

The next step was to determine how exactly the galaxy could have created the observed oxygen profile.

The team then reconstructed the star formation history in the galaxy using infrared data taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

Scientists believe that the Universe's first stars formed in regions of very dense matter, although understanding of that process is still limited. As this infrared light travelled across space, the expansion of the Universe stretched it to wavelengths more than ten times longer by the time it reached Earth and was detected by ALMA. The astronomers suppose that the first star formation burst blew the gas away from the galaxy, which would suppress the star formation.

"This has very exciting implications for finding "cosmic dawn" when the first galaxies emerged", he added. With MACS1149-JD1, we have managed to probe history beyond the limits of when we can actually detect galaxies with current facilities. These observations independently verify that MACS1149-JD1 is the most distant galaxy with a precise distance measurement. "Since we are all made of processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins", said Richard Ellis, senior astronomer at UCL and co-author of the new paper detailing this research.

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