From AAS NOVA: “Making Stars at the Beginning of the Universe”



14 February 2020
Tarini Konchady

An artist’s impression of a high redshift Milky Way-like galaxy with a halo of gas and a background quasar. [Alexandra Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)].

Studying star formation in the early universe can give us clues about what the universe was like when the earliest massive galaxies were forming. How efficiently were these first galaxies making stars only a billion years after the Big Bang?

Lighting Up the Universe

The universe wasn’t always a treasure trove of galaxies. Not long after the Big Bang, it consisted largely of opaque neutral hydrogen, and the only photons present were either from the cosmic microwave background [CMB] or emitted during electron transitions in hydrogen atoms.

CMB per ESA/Planck

Between redshifts of z = 20 and z = 6 (i.e., between 150 million and 1 billion years after the Big Bang), the first galaxies formed and their stars ionized the hydrogen, allowing light to travel freely through the universe.

Lamda Cold Dark Matter Accerated Expansion of The universe http the-cosmic-inflation-suggests-the-existence-of-parallel-universes
Alex Mittelmann, Coldcreation

This sounds very neat and straightforward, but the specifics of this process are hazy (note the very large time window!). What sort of stars did the ionizing? Did it happen all at once or more slowly? How long did it take? Pinning down the star formation rates of galaxies at that transition redshift of z ~ 6 can help us answer some of these questions.

Left: spectra of galaxies HZ10 and LBG-1 highlighting the CO and carbon lines studied. The red line in the HZ10 spectrum is the Gaussian fit to the detected CO. The blue histogram is the CO emission, scaled down by a factor of 40. Right: integrated line maps of HZ10 and LBG-1 with contours showing CO (white lines) and carbon (black lines). The maps are created by integrating the individual spectra that compose the map, collapsing the data from three dimensions to two. The maps are scaled based on the carbon detections. [Pavesi et al. 2019]

The star formation rate of a galaxy is governed by many factors, not least of which are inflows and outflows of gas and the makeup of the gas contained within the galaxy. Measuring flows in early galaxies is beyond the capability of current instruments, but a lot can be learned by studying the cold, star-formation-fueling molecular gas that lies within galaxies.

And that’s precisely what a group of scientists led by Riccardo Pavesi (Cornell University) did. Using observations taken by the Very Large Array (VLA) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Pavesi and collaborators studied molecular features in a sample of galaxies at z = 5–6.

NRAO/Karl V Jansky Expanded Very Large Array, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA, at an elevation of 6970 ft (2124 m)

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

Reading the Lines

For this study, Pavesi and collaborators leverage particular emission lines associated with carbon monoxide (CO), carbon, and nitrogen. This emission can appear in long-wavelength observations when the galaxies in question are very distant. The authors also study the overall radiation emanating from dust in their target galaxies.

A notable finding from the analysis is the highest redshift detection of CO emission, which comes from a galaxy at z ~ 5.7. However, this galaxy, HZ10, also stands out for another reason: it appears to contain a large reservoir of gas, perfect for making stars.

The ratio of molecular gas mass to stellar mass versus redshift for galaxies located at 0 < z 5 found that early galaxies formed stars very efficiently — but because these studies probed only the most luminous of galaxies, it was unclear whether this result would hold for more typical galaxies at this redshift.

HZ10’s large gas reservoir indicates that this “normal” galaxy has a much lower star-formation efficiency than the brighter galaxies we’ve previously studied at this redshift; it actually shares more characteristics with galaxies at z ~ 3. HZ10 offers some of the first evidence that galaxies with lower star formation efficiencies exist at z > 3.

As with most new discoveries, we need larger samples and high quality observations to better understand this — stay tuned!


“Low Star Formation Efficiency in Typical Galaxies at z = 5–6,” Riccardo Pavesi et al 2019 ApJ 882 168.

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition


AAS Mission and Vision Statement

The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the Universe.

The Society, through its publications, disseminates and archives the results of astronomical research. The Society also communicates and explains our understanding of the universe to the public.
The Society facilitates and strengthens the interactions among members through professional meetings and other means. The Society supports member divisions representing specialized research and astronomical interests.
The Society represents the goals of its community of members to the nation and the world. The Society also works with other scientific and educational societies to promote the advancement of science.
The Society, through its members, trains, mentors and supports the next generation of astronomers. The Society supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy.
The Society assists its members to develop their skills in the fields of education and public outreach at all levels. The Society promotes broad interest in astronomy, which enhances science literacy and leads many to careers in science and engineering.

Adopted June 7, 2009