Scientists have detected the most distant signs of oxygen in the universe

The pillars of this dust cloud are thought to be forming new stars

The amazing discovery provides scientists with a glimpse into what the universe was like in ancient times. Scientists have detected the most distant signs of oxygen in the universe – a mind boggling 13.1 BILLION light years from Earth.

Researchers say the universe we know today is abundant with different chemical elements.

But, at the beginning of the universe, there was only hot, ionised gas filled with electrons and ions of hydrogen and helium buzzing around.

After 400,000 years, the universe cooled, and electrons and hydrogen ions combined to form neutral hydrogen atoms.

Nothing more happened for several hundreds of millions of years until the first generation of stars were formed, emitting strong radiation that ionised hydrogen once again, also synthesising other heavier elements – such as carbon and oxygen.

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Scientists say studying heavy elements from that era provides clues about what triggered reionisation, the nature of the first stars, and how galaxies were born.

But studying such elements is extremely difficult because it requires astronomers to find objects as far away as possible, something only possible using the best telescopes available.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, a team of researchers targeted SXDF-NB1006-2 – a galaxy only discovered in 2012.

The team had earlier run large-scale numerical simulations of galaxy formation to conclude that the ALMA telescope would be capable of detecting light from ionised oxygen in SXDF-NB1006-2.

As a result, ALMA detected radiation coming from doubly ionised oxygen. From the light’s strength the team also calculated the amount of oxygen in the galaxy is much smaller than that of the Sun.

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Project Professor Naoki Yoshida, of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU) in Japan, said: “Our results showed this galaxy contains one tenth of oxygen found in our Sun.

“But the small abundance is expected because the universe was still young and had a short history of star formation at that time.”

Research team leader Professor Akio Inoue, of Osaka Sangyo University in Japan, has suggested the lack of dust could be an indication that almost all the gas in the galaxy is highly ionised.

Prof Inoue said: “SXDF-NB1006-2 would be a prototype of the light sources responsible for the cosmic reionisation.”

Assistant Professor Youichi Tamura, of Tokyo University, added: “This is the first step to understanding what kind of objects caused cosmic reionisation.”

The findings were published in the journal Science.

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