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Galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 with galaxy MACS1149-JD1 inset. Oxygen is depicted in green. Image: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, W. Zheng (JHU), M. Postman (STScI), the CLASH Team, Hashimoto et al.

Astronomers have detected oxygen in a galaxy more than 13 billion light years away — a direct measurement of stars forming and dying in the early universe.

The big picture: The time when stars first formed in the universe is of intense interest to researchers. It is the epoch when matter began clumping together into stars and galaxies, heavy elements started to form, and our universe began to look like it does today.

"We have a theory for why that all happened but precious few observations of when it all started to take shape."
Rob Simcoe, astronomer, MIT

How they did it: Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the Chilean desert, astronomers at Osaka Sangyo University detected a signature of oxygen in light from galaxy MACS1149-JD1.

  • Based on how much the light stretched due to the expansion of the universe, they determined the galaxy was 13.28 billion light years away, or from about 500 million years after the Big Bang, they report in Nature on Wednesday.
  • Researchers at the University College London then used the optical Very Large Telescope, also in Chile, to look for hydrogen emissions that supported the distance they observed.
  • "They brought to bear multiple assets from around the globe that, taken collectively, paint a pretty convincing case," says Simcoe, who was not involved in the research.

What it might mean: Oxygen is formed in stars and released when they die, so its detection indicates MACS1149-JD1 was old enough at the time to be home to stars that had already cycled through life.

  • When the researchers looked at infrared data of the galaxy from the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, their model — which they acknowledge in their report is "somewhat speculative" — suggested many stars there were 300 million years old.
  • The team proposes that stars in the galaxy began to form just 250 million years after the Big Bang, then became inactive before another round of formation that the researchers detected with ALMA.
  • The first stars in the universe therefore may be older than expected, but Simcoe says "time will tell whether that holds up" because their formation is difficult to measure.

What's next: Studies like this one show it's "actually possible to identify, detect and study galaxies from the earliest times," Simcoe says. Researchers hope Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), can be used to observe them with more resolution.

  • It won't launch until at least 2020 (it has been delayed multiple times), but in the meantime look for more studies about potential targets for JWST as researchers jockey for precious time on the telescope.

Go deeper

Perfect storm brewing for extreme politicians

Data: Axios research; Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Redistricting and a flood of departing incumbents are paving the way for more extreme candidates in this year's midterm elections.

Driving the news: At least 19 House districts in 12 states are primed to attract such candidates — hard partisans running in strongly partisan districts — according to an Axios analysis of districts as measured by the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index (PVI).

Updated 3 hours ago - Technology

3D printing's next act: big metal objects

Chief Scientist Andy Bayramian makes modifications to the laser system on Seurat's 3D metal printer. Photo courtesy of Seurat Technologies.

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Updated 5 hours ago - Technology

Mayors see cryptocurrency as a way to address income inequality

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting in D.C. this week, there's buzz around the idea of giving cryptocurrency accounts to low-income people.

Why it matters: Cities have been experimenting with newfangled ways to address income inequality — like guaranteed income programs — and the latest wave of trials could involve paying benefits or dividends in bitcoin, stablecoin or other digital currencies.