First Generation Stars in the Universe by VLT

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have discovered by far the brightest galaxy yet found in the early Universe.

Artist’s concept of CR7, a very distant galaxy and by far the brightest galaxy yet found in the early universe.  Credit ESO

ESO’s Very Large Telescope discovers CR7, the brightest distant galaxy, and found strong evidence that examples of the first generation of stars lurk within it. These massive, brilliant, and previously purely theoretical objects were the creators of the first heavy elements in history — the elements necessary to forge the stars around us today, the planets that orbit them, and life as we know it. The newly found galaxy, labelled CR7, is three times brighter than the brightest distant galaxy known up to now.

Astronomers have long theorised the existence of a first generation of stars — known as Population III stars — that were born out of the primordial material from the Big Bang. All the heavier chemical elements — such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and iron, which are essential to life — were forged in the bellies of stars. This means that the first stars must have formed out of the only elements to exist prior to stars: hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium.

These Population III stars would have been enormous — several hundred or even a thousand times more massive than the Sun — blazing hot, and transient — exploding as supernovae after only about two million years. But until now the search for physical proof of their existence had been inconclusive.

A team led by David Sobral, from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences, the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon in Portugal, and Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, has now used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to peer back into the ancient Universe, to a period known as reionisation, approximately 800 million years after the Big Bang. Instead of conducting a narrow and deep study of a small area of the sky, they broadened their scope to produce the widest survey of very distant galaxies ever attempted.

The X-shooter and SINFONI instruments on the VLT found strong ionised helium emission in CR7 but — crucially and surprisingly — no sign of any heavier elements in a bright pocket in the galaxy. This meant the team had discovered the first good evidence for clusters of Population III stars that had ionised gas within a galaxy in the early Universe.

David Sobral, said:

“The discovery challenged our expectations from the start. As we didn’t expect to find such a bright galaxy. Then, by unveiling the nature of CR7 piece by piece, we understood that not only had we found by far the most luminous distant galaxy, but also started to realise that it had every single characteristic expected of Population III stars. Those stars were the ones that formed the first heavy atoms that ultimately allowed us to be here. It doesn’t really get any more exciting than this.”