From European Southern Observatory and ALMA Observatory: “ALMA and VLT Find Evidence for Stars Forming Just 250 Million Years After Big Bang”

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From ALMA

16 May 2018

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Nicolas Laporte
University College London
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University College London
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Astronomers have used observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to determine that star formation in the very distant galaxy MACS1149-JD1 started at an unexpectedly early stage, only 250 million years after the Big Bang. 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. The results will appear in the journal Nature on 17 May 2018.

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This image shows the huge galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+223, whose light took over 5 billion years to reach us. The huge mass of the cluster is bending the light from more distant objects. The light from these objects has been magnified and distorted due to gravitational lensing. The same effect is creating multiple images of the same distant objects.
Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Rodney (John Hopkins University, USA) and the SN team; T. Treu (University of California Los Angeles, USA), P. Kelly (University of California Berkeley, USA) and the GLASS team; J. Lotz (STScI) and the Frontier Fields team; M. Postman (STScI) and the CLASH team; and Z. Levay (STScI)

Frontier Fields

Gravitational Lensing NASA/ESA

NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

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This image shows the very distant galaxy MACS1149-JD1, seen as it was 13.3 billion years ago and observed with ALMA. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Hashimoto et al.


ESOcast 161 Light: Distant galaxy reveals very early star formation.


Zooming in on the distant galaxy MACS1149, and beyond


Computer simulation of star formation in MACS1149-JD1


Zooming in on the distant galaxy MACS 1149-JD1

An international team of astronomers used ALMA to observe a distant galaxy called MACS1149-JD1. They detected a very faint glow emitted by ionised oxygen in the galaxy. 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 team inferred that the signal was emitted 13.3 billion years ago (or 500 million years after the Big Bang), making it the most distant oxygen ever detected by any telescope [1]. The presence of oxygen is a clear sign that there must have been even earlier generations of stars in this galaxy.

“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. “This detection pushes back the frontiers of the observable Universe.”

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Microwave spectrum of oxygen ions in MACS1149-JD1 detected with ALMA. It was originally infrared light with a wavelength of 88 micrometers, and ALMA detected it as microwaves with an increased wavelength of 893 micrometers due to the expansion of the Universe. Credit: Hashimoto et al. – ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

In addition to the glow from oxygen picked up by ALMA, a weaker signal of hydrogen emission was also detected by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). The distance to the galaxy determined from this observation is consistent with the distance from the oxygen observation. 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.

“This galaxy is seen at a time when the Universe was only 500 million years old and yet it already has a population of mature stars,” explains Nicolas Laporte, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the UK and second author of the new paper. “We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted period of cosmic history.”

For a period after the Big Bang there was no oxygen in the Universe; it was created by the fusion processes of the first stars and then released when these stars died. The detection of oxygen in MACS1149-JD1 indicates that these earlier generations of stars had been already formed and expelled oxygen by just 500 million years after the beginning of the Universe.

But when did this earlier star formation occur? To find out, the team reconstructed the earlier history of MACS1149-JD1 using infrared data taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope. 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 [2].

NASA/Spitzer Infrared Telescope

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”. By establishing the age of MACS1149-JD1, the team has effectively demonstrated that galaxies existed earlier than those we can currently directly detect.

Richard Ellis, senior astronomer at UCL and co-author of the paper, concludes: “Determining when cosmic dawn occurred is akin to the Holy Grail of cosmology and galaxy formation. With these new observations of MACS1149-JD1 we are getting closer to directly witnessing the birth of starlight! Since we are all made of processed stellar material, this is really finding our own origins.”
ESO Notes

[1] ALMA has set the record for detecting the most distant oxygen several times. In 2016, Akio Inoue at Osaka Sangyo University and his colleagues used ALMA to find a signal of oxygen emitted 13.1 billion years ago. Several months later, Nicolas Laporte of University College London used ALMA to detect oxygen 13.2 billion years ago. Now, the two teams combined their efforts and achieved this new record, which corresponds to a redshift of 9.1.

[2] This corresponds to a redshift of about 15.

More information

ALMA Notes

[1] The measured redshift of galaxy MACS1149-JD1 is z=9.11. A calculation based on the latest cosmological parameters measured with Planck (H0=67.3 km/s/Mpc, Ωm=0.315, Λ=0.685: Planck 2013 Results) yields the distance of 13.28 billion light-years. Please refer to “Expressing the distance to remote objects” for the details.

[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). But the precision of the distance measurement with HST low-resolution spectroscopy is significantly lower than that of ALMA’s measurement using a single emission line from atoms.

These results are published in a paper entitled: “The onset of star formation 250 million years after the Big Bang”, by T. Hashimoto et al., to appear in the journal Nature on 17 May 2018.

The research team members are: Takuya Hashimoto (Osaka Sangyo University/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Japan), Nicolas Laporte (University College London, United Kingdom), Ken Mawatari (Osaka Sangyo University, Japan), Richard S. Ellis (University College London, United Kingdom), Akio. K. Inoue (Osaka Sangyo University, Japan), Erik Zackrisson (Uppsala University, Sweden), Guido Roberts-Borsani (University College London, United Kingdom), Wei Zheng (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, United States), Yoichi Tamura (Nagoya University, Japan), Franz E. Bauer (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile), Thomas Fletcher (University College London, United Kingdom), Yuichi Harikane (The University of Tokyo, Japan), Bunyo Hatsukade (The University of Tokyo, Japan), Natsuki H. Hayatsu (The University of Tokyo, Japan; ESO, Garching, Germany), Yuichi Matsuda (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI, Japan), Hiroshi Matsuo (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI, Japan, Sapporo, Japan), Takashi Okamoto (Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan), Masami Ouchi (The University of Tokyo, Japan), Roser Pelló (Université de Toulouse, France), Claes-Erik Rydberg (Universität Heidelberg, Germany), Ikkoh Shimizu (Osaka University, Japan), Yoshiaki Taniguchi (The Open University of Japan, Chiba, Japan), Hideki Umehata (The University of Tokyo, Japan) and Naoki Yoshida (The University of Tokyo, Japan).

See the full ESO article here .

See the full ALMA article here .

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The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan.

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