Images from Nasa’s Hubble Space telescope show the Galaxy MACS1149-JD1, located 13.28 billion light-years away from earth. Astronomers have zoomed in closer than ever to the “cosmic dawn” of the Universe’s first stars. Pinpointing this period of star birth — which gave rise to oxygen and other elements in the Universe — is crucial for astronomers chasing down the beginning of everything. Image Credit: AFP

In a distant galaxy more than 13 billion light-years from Earth, astronomers have discovered traces of the oldest known oxygen in the universe, as well as evidence that ancient stars “turned on” as early as 250 million years after the Big Bang.

These findings, published on Wednesday in Nature, suggest that star formation at the dawn of the cosmos may have been more common and robust than previously thought.

“It is not surprising that stars began to form at about that time, but what is surprising is that we found most of the stars in this galaxy were born so early,” said Richard Ellis, an astrophysicist at the University College of London who contributed to the study.

“Most models suggest star formation begins gradually, not in such a single burst of activity,” he added.

The ancient galaxy, known as MACS1149-JD1, was discovered in 2012, but scientists didn’t know how far away it was until now.

To get an accurate measurement of its distance from Earth, an international team of astronomers used the ALMA telescope in the Chilean desert to look for the signature of ionised oxygen within the light emanating from the galaxy.

“ALMA is a very sensitive observatory, and oxygen is one of the most readily detected spectrum lines in hot gas,” Ellis said.

Because the universe is expanding, the wavelength of the oxygen spectrum was stretched out as it travelled through space in a process known as redshift.

By measuring the wavelength of this spectrum once it reached Earth, scientists were able to get a remarkably accurate picture of how long this light has been beaming across the cosmos.

The oxygen line from MACS1149-JD1 originally was emitted at a wavelength of about 88 microns, but it ultimately was stretched to about 893 microns, said Takuya Hashimoto, an astronomer at Osaka Sangyo University and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan who led the study.

That indicates that the light from this galaxy was emitted 13.28 billion years ago, when the universe was about 550 million years old, he said.

But that’s just part of the story.

Immediately after the Big Bang, there was no oxygen in the universe. That’s because oxygen can be forged only in the nuclear furnace of stars. And it is released into the cosmos only when those stars die.

Therefore, the presence of oxygen in the MACS1149-JD1 galaxy suggests that by 500 million years after the Big Bang, this galaxy already had reached a certain level of chemical maturity. Stars had already died there.

To get a more accurate picture of how old the galaxy was when it was emitting light 13.28 billion years ago, the astronomy team turned to the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to determine its colour.

“The redder the galaxy, the older the stellar population,” said study coauthor Nicolas Laporte, a researcher at University College London. “And in our case, we have a very red galaxy, which is due to old stars.”

Indeed, these measurements allowed the scientists to determine that many of the stars in MACS1149-JD1 were already 300 million years old 13.28 billion years ago. This means they had to have formed about 250 million years after the Big Bang — or when the universe was just 2% its present age.

As usual, these new discoveries have led researchers to ask more questions.

For example, are there many galaxies in the universe as old as this one or is this an extra-old outlier?

Ellis said the team already has plans to observe two additional distant galaxies to determine their ages.

Hashimoto added that when the James Webb Space Telescope comes online around 2020, it is likely that many more distant galaxies will be discovered.

Also, if we know now that stars were turning on en masse 250 million years after the Big Bang, then how early in the universe’s history did the first stars light up the darkness of space?

“The mature stellar population in MACS1149-JD1 implies that stars were forming back to even earlier times, beyond what we can currently see with our telescopes,” Laporte said. “This has very exciting implications for finding ‘cosmic dawn’ when the first galaxies emerged.”