The ALMA telescope has been used to detect the most distant clouds of star-forming gas yet found in normal galaxies in the early Universe. The new observations allow astronomers to start to see how the first galaxies were built up and how they cleared the cosmic fog during the era of reionisation. This is the first time that such galaxies are seen as more than just faint blobs.
When the first galaxies started to form a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, the Universe was full of a fog of hydrogen gas. But as more and more brilliant sources — both stars and quasars powered by huge black holes — started to shine they cleared away the mist and made the Universe transparent to ultraviolet light . Astronomers call this the epoch of reionisation, but little is known about these first galaxies, and up to now they have just been seen as very faint blobs. But now new observations using the power of ALMA are starting to change this.
A team of astronomers led by Roberto Maiolino (Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom) trained ALMA on galaxies that were known to be seen only about 800 million years after the Big Bang . They were not looking for the light from stars, but instead the faint glow of ionised carbon  coming from the clouds of gas from which the stars were forming. They wanted to study the interaction between a young generation of stars and the cold clumps that were assembling these first galaxies.
They were also not looking for the extremely brilliant rare objects — such as quasars and galaxies with very high rates of star formation — that had been seen up to now. Instead they concentrated on rather less dramatic, but much more common, galaxies that reionised the Universe and went on to turn into the bulk of the galaxies that we see around us now.
For one of the galaxies — given the label BDF2399 — ALMA could pick up the faint but clear signal from the glowing carbon. But this glow wasn’t coming from the centre of the galaxy, rather from one side.
Co-author Andrea Ferrara (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy) explains the significance of the new findings: “This is the most distant detection ever of this kind of emission from a ‘normal’ galaxy, less than one billion years after the Big Bang. It gives us the opportunity to watch the build-up of the first galaxies. For the first time we are seeing early galaxies not merely as tiny blobs, but as objects with internal structure!”
The astronomers think that the off-centre location of the glow is because the central clouds are being disrupted by the harsh environment created by the newly formed stars — both their intense radiation and the effects of supernova explosions — while the carbon glow is tracing fresh cold gas that is being accreted from the intergalactic medium.
By combining the new ALMA observations with computer simulations, it has been possible to understand in detail key processes occurring within the first galaxies. The effects of the radiation from stars, the survival of molecular clouds, the escape of ionising radiation and the complex structure of the interstellar medium can now be calculated and compared with observation. BDF2399 is likely to be a typical example of the galaxies responsible for reionisation.
“We have been trying to understand the interstellar medium and the formation of the reionisation sources for many years. Finally to be able to test predictions and hypotheses on real data from ALMA is an exciting moment and opens a new set of questions.This type of observation will clarify many of the thorny problems we have with the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe,” adds Andrea Ferrara.
Roberto Maiolino concludes: “This study would have simply been impossible without ALMA, as no other instrument could reach the sensitivity and spatial resolution required. Although this is one of the deepest ALMA observations so far it is still far from achieving its ultimate capabilities. In future ALMA will image the fine structure of primordial galaxies and trace in detail the build-up of the very first galaxies.”
 Neutral hydrogen gas very efficiently absorbs all the high-energy ultraviolet light emitted by young hot stars. Consequently, these stars in the early Universe are almost impossible to observe. At the same time, the absorbed ultraviolet light ionises the hydrogen, making it fully transparent. The hot stars are therefore carving transparent bubbles in the gas. Once all these bubbles merge to fill all of space, reionisation is complete and the Universe becomes transparent.
 Astronomers are particularly interested in ionised carbon as this particular spectral line carries away most of the energy injected by stars and allows astronomers to trace the cold gas out of which stars form. Specifically, the team were looking for the emission from singly ionised carbon (known as [C II]). This radiation is emitted at a wavelength of 158 micrometres, and by the time it is stretched by the expansion of the Universe arrives at ALMA at just the right wavelength for it to be detected at a wavelength of about 1.3 millimetres.
This research was presented in a paper “The assembly of “normal” galaxies at z∼7 probed by ALMA”, by R. Maiolino et al., to appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on 22 July 2015.
The team is composed of R. Maiolino (Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom; Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdon) S. Carniani (Cavendish Laboratory; Kavli Institute for Cosmology; Universitá di Firenze, Florence, Italy), A. Fontana (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), L. Vallini (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy; Universitá di Bologna, Bologna, Italy), L. Pentericci (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), A. Ferrara (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy), E. Vanzella (INAF–Bologna Astronomical Observatory, Bologna, Italy), A. Grazian (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), S. Gallerani (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy), M. Castellano (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), S. Cristiani (INAF–Trieste Astronomical Observatory, Trieste, Italy), G. Brammer (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, USA), P. Santini (INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), J. Wagg (Square Kilometre Array Organization, Jodrell Bank Observatory, United Kingdom) and R. Williams (Cavendish Laboratory; Kavli Institute for Cosmology).
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).
ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
Cavendish Laboratory & Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, United Kingdom