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Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge


Astronomers have detected carbon in a galaxy just 350 million years after the Big Bang, the earliest detection of any element in the universe other than hydrogen.

Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an international team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge observed a very young galaxy in the early universe and found that it contained surprising amounts of carbon, one of the seeds of life as we know it. In astronomy, elements heavier than hydrogen or helium are classed as metals. The very early universe was almost entirely made up of hydrogen, the simplest of the elements, with small amounts of helium and tiny amounts of lithium.

Lead author Dr Francesco D’Eugenio from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at Cambridge. said “The very first stars are the holy grail of chemical evolution. Since they are made only of primordial elements, they behave very differently to 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.”

Co-author Professor Roberto Maiolino, also from the Kavli Institute highlighted “Earlier research suggested that carbon started to form in large quantities relatively late – about one billion years after the Big Bang,. But we’ve found that carbon formed much earlier – it might even be the oldest metal of all.”

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Royal Society, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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