A young galaxy was a heavy metal rebel in the early universe

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has discovered the most distant carbon ever found in a galaxy we see as it existed just 350 million years after the Big Bang.

The detection is significant because not only is carbon the oldest known, it is the first time an element heavier than hydrogen or helium – what astronomers call “metals” – has been confirmed so early. globe.

“Earlier research showed that large amounts of carbon began to form relatively late – about a billion years after the Big bang,” said Roberto Maiolino, from the Kavli Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, i statement. “But we discovered that carbon was formed much earlier – it may be the oldest metal of all.”

Related: What is the Big Bang theory?

The hydrogen and helium in the universe were born in the furnace of the Big Bang, but apart from an extra smidgen of lithium, all other elements had to wait to come from the stars. Nuclear fusion reactions inside those stars create carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and so on, and the raw energy of a supernova explosion can, of course, create many other, even heavier, elements. neutron-star merger.

Many of these elements, especially carbon, are critical to the formation of planets and life as we know it, but it took generations of stars to build up enough carbon and other metals to be detectable for so long. to be useful in cosmic chemistry. .

However, the JWSTand detect carbon in the galaxy GS-z12 — found at a redshift of 12.5, which equates to a look-back time of 13.4 billion years — suggesting that stars lived rapidly during the formative years of the cosmos. Many generations must have come and gone in rapid succession to build up appreciable amounts of carbon in a short period of time. (The Big Bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago.)

“We were surprised to see carbon so early in the universe, since the earliest stars were thought to have much more oxygen than carbon,” said Maiolino. “We thought that carbon was enriched much later, through completely different processes, but the fact that it appears so early tells us that stars it might have worked very differently.”

GS-z12 is a compact, low-mass galaxy compared to our own The Milky Way but it is quite massive for the initial time frame in which we find it, a populated era small but rapidly growing galaxies.

“It’s just an embryo of a galaxy when we look at it, but it could evolve into something quite large, the size of the Milky Way,” said the Kavli Institute’s Francesco D’Eugenio, who led the research.

The discovery of carbon so soon could change what we know about the course of cosmic chemistry. Carbon is an essential component of cosmic dust grains, which combine to build larger objects — asteroids, planetestimals, and finally planets themselves. In fact, it is believed that the Earth was assembled from mostly carbonaceous objects. Carbon is a vital element of life as we know it.

“The first stars are the holy grail of chemical evolution,” said D’Eugenio. “Since they are only made of primordial elements [i.e hydrogen and helium exclusively], behave very differently from modern stars. By studying how and when the first metals formed inside stars, we can set a time frame for the earliest steps on the path that led to the formation of life.”

The JWST’s Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec), which detected carbon, also found hints of oxygen and neon in GS-z12, but more data is needed to confirm the presence of these elements.


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Although the carbon in GS-z12 is confirmed to be the earliest metal, the galaxy may not hold the record for very long. Astronomers using the JWST have discovered what it looks like highest redshift galaxy discovered to date, at a redshift of 14.2, making it only 290 million years after the Big Bang. An oxygen absorption line was detected in its spectrum, but that discovery still needs to be stamped by peer review. When published in a journal, it will be the earliest example of an element heavier than hydrogen or helium.

Either way, the new discovery shows that significant features could have been produced in the early universe and that stars lived and died faster than astronomers realized.

In addition, the presence of carbon and oxygen in the early universe means that astronomers and astronomers can perhaps start talking about the existence of the planets and possibly life in the early universe as well.

The discovery of carbon in GS-z12 is to be published in a future issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics, but a preview of the paper is available here.

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