A magnified young galaxy from about 500 million years after the Big Bang

Abstract

Re-ionization of the intergalactic medium occurred in the early Universe at redshift z ≈ 6–11, following the formation of the first generation of stars1. Those young galaxies (where the bulk of stars formed) at a cosmic age of less than about 500 million years (z 10) remain largely unexplored because they are at or beyond the sensitivity limits of existing large telescopes. Understanding the properties of these galaxies is critical to identifying the source of the radiation that re-ionized the intergalactic medium. Gravitational lensing by galaxy clusters allows the detection of high-redshift galaxies fainter than what otherwise could be found in the deepest images of the sky2. Here we report multiband observations of the cluster MACS J1149+2223 that have revealed (with high probability) a gravitationally magnified galaxy from the early Universe, at a redshift of z = 9.6 ± 0.2 (that is, a cosmic age of 490 ± 15 million years, or 3.6 per cent of the age of the Universe). We estimate that it formed less than 200 million years after the Big Bang (at the 95 per cent confidence level), implying a formation redshift of 14. Given the small sky area that our observations cover, faint galaxies seem to be abundant at such a young cosmic age, suggesting that they may be the dominant source for the early re-ionization of the intergalactic medium.

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Figure 1: Multiband images of the z = 9.6 galaxy candidate MACS 1149-JD.
Figure 2: Composite colour image of MACS J1149.6+2223 made from multiband data.
Figure 3: Probability distributions of photometric redshift estimation.
Figure 4: Stellar population synthesis modelling results for MACS 1149-JD.

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Acknowledgements

The CLASH programme (GO-12065) is based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. under NASA contract NAS 5-26555. This work is also based in part on archival data obtained with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA. J.M. acknowledges support from NSF grant AST-0908246. A. Z. is supported by research contract Internationale Spitzenforschung II-1 of the Baden Württemberg Stiftung.

Author information

W.Z. made the initial identification and wrote a draft. R.B., D.C., H.F. and L.B. verified the target selection. M.P and H.F performed comparisons with intermediate-redshift and nearby objects and edited the final version. W.Z., A.K., L.B., D.C., S.O. and E.M. processed the HST data. X.S., W.Z. and L.A.M. performed the IRAC photometry. S.J., A.M., D.C., O.H. and N.B. made the redshift estimates. M.P., T.R.L. and L.B. performed the image deconvolution. J.M. carried out the SED fitting. A.Z., M.C. and T.B. constructed the lensing models. L.A.M. and D.C. estimated the SFR density at z ≈ 10. The above authors also contributed the text and figures that describe their analyses. P.R., L.I., P.M., M.N., R.B. and L.A.M. contributed to the observing programmes. M.B., M.D., D.D.K., O.L., K.U. and A.v.d.W. were involved in designing the project, reviewing the results and editing the manuscript. C.G., S.W.J., D.L. and P.M. edited the manuscript.

Correspondence to Wei Zheng.

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Zheng, W., Postman, M., Zitrin, A. et al. A magnified young galaxy from about 500 million years after the Big Bang. Nature 489, 406–408 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11446

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