Most distant breath of oxygen dates back to the Cosmic Dawn


The detection of oxygen at MACS1149-JD1 meant that these earlier generations of stars had been already formed and were expelling oxygen just 500m years after the beginning of the universe.

Titled "The onset of star formation 250 million years after the Big Bang", the paper, involving a large worldwide team of researchers, was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"This extremely distant, extremely young galaxy has a remarkable chemical maturity to it", says Wei Zheng, lead astronomer on the study. They detected a very faint glow emitted by ionised oxygen in the galaxy. As this infrared light traversed space, the extension of the Universe extended it to wavelengths in excess of ten times longer when it achieved Earth and was identified by ALMA. When that light was produced in MACS1149-JD1 it was in the infrared, but during its billions of years journeying to Earth, the expansion of the universe stretched it out to the microwave frequencies that ALMA is sensitive to.

The work of Takuya Hashimoto and his group at Osaka Sangyo University sheds light on the formation of the first stars and suggests that future telescopes - such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the Hubble 'scope in orbit starting in 2020 - could find new evidence on the formation of first-generation stars, Bouwens said. "This detection pushes back the frontiers of the observable universe". However, numerous heavier elements we take for granted today (such as carbon and oxygen) did not exist before the first stars. This makes MACS1149-JD1 the most distant galaxy with a precise distance measurement and the most distant galaxy ever observed with ALMA or the VLT.

"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", says Nicolas Laporte, an astronomer on the research team. "We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted period of cosmic history", Nicolas Laporte, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom and second author of the new paper, explained in the statement.

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For a period after the Big Bang, there was no oxygen in the Universe; it was made by the combination procedures of the primary stars and afterward discharged when these stars kicked the bucket.

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". "This has very exciting implications for finding "Cosmic Dawn" when the first galaxies emerged".

"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".

Richard Ellis, senior astronomer at UCL and coauthor of the paper, said in the statement: "Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation".