Abstract

The earliest galaxies are thought to have emerged during the first billion years of cosmic history, initiating the ionization of the neutral hydrogen that pervaded the Universe at this time. Studying this ‘epoch of reionization’ involves looking for the spectral signatures of ancient galaxies that are, owing to the expansion of the Universe, now very distant from Earth and therefore exhibit large redshifts. However, finding these spectral fingerprints is challenging. One spectral characteristic of ancient and distant galaxies is strong hydrogen-emission lines (known as Lyman-α lines), but the neutral intergalactic medium that was present early in the epoch of reionization scatters such Lyman-α photons. Another potential spectral identifier is the line at wavelength 157.4 micrometres of the singly ionized state of carbon (the [C ii] λ = 157.74 μm line), which signifies cooling gas and is expected to have been bright in the early Universe. However, so far Lyman-α-emitting galaxies from the epoch of reionization have demonstrated much fainter [C ii] luminosities than would be expected from local scaling relations1,2,3,4,5, and searches for the [C ii] line in sources without Lyman-α emission but with photometric redshifts greater than 6 (corresponding to the first billion years of the Universe) have been unsuccessful. Here we identify [C ii] λ = 157.74 μm emission from two sources that we selected as high-redshift candidates on the basis of near-infrared photometry; we confirm that these sources are two galaxies at redshifts of z = 6.8540 ± 0.0003 and z = 6.8076 ± 0.0002. Notably, the luminosity of the [C ii] line from these galaxies is higher than that found previously in star-forming galaxies with redshifts greater than 6.5. The luminous and extended [C ii] lines reveal clear velocity gradients that, if interpreted as rotation, would indicate that these galaxies have similar dynamic properties to the turbulent yet rotation-dominated disks that have been observed in Hα-emitting galaxies two billion years later, at ‘cosmic noon’.

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Acknowledgements

This paper makes use of the following ALMA data: ADS/JAO.ALMA#2015.1.01111.S (http://almascience.org/aq?project_code=2015.1.01111.S). ALMA is a partnership of the European Southern Observatory (ESO, UK), the National Science Foundation (NSF, USA) and the National Institute of Natural Sciences (NINS, Japan), together with the National Research Council (NRC, Canada), the National Security Council (NSC) and Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA, Taiwan), and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI, South Korea), in cooperation with Chile. The Joint ALMA Observatory is operated by ESO, Associated Universities Inc. (AUI)/National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). This work is part of a Rubicon programme, ‘A multi-wavelength view of the first galaxies’, with project number 680-50-1518, which is financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). R.M. and S.C. acknowledge ERC Advanced Grant 695671 ‘QUENCH’ and support by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, 19 JJ Thomson Avenue, Cambridge CB3 0HE, UK

    • Renske Smit
    • , Stefano Carniani
    •  & Roberto Maiolino
  2. Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0HA, UK

    • Renske Smit
    • , Stefano Carniani
    •  & Roberto Maiolino
  3. Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, NL-2300 RA Leiden, Netherlands

    • Rychard J. Bouwens
    • , Ivo Labbé
    • , Paul van der Werf
    •  & Jacqueline A. Hodge
  4. Observatoire de Genève, Université de Genève, Chemin des Maillettes 51, CH-1290 Versoix, Switzerland

    • Pascal A. Oesch
  5. UCO/Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA

    • Garth D. Illingworth
  6. Space Telescope Science Institute, 3700 San Martin Drive, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA

    • Larry D. Bradley
  7. Departmento de Astronomia, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 36-D, Santiago 7591245, Chile

    • Valentino Gonzalez
  8. Centro de Astrofisica y Tecnologias Afines (CATA), Camino del Observatorio 1515, Las Condes, Santiago 7591245, Chile

    • Valentino Gonzalez
  9. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky 40292, USA

    • Benne W. Holwerda
  10. Department of Physics and Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, 3400 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA

    • Wei Zheng

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Contributions

R.S. performed the data reduction and nearly all data analysis for this work. S.C. carried out the modelling of a thin disk to the velocity fields. R.S. led the telescope proposal to obtain the dataset, with a number of key ideas contributed by R.J.B. R.S. was responsible for making all of the figures and writing most of the text. R.J.B., S.C., P.A.O., I.L., G.D.I., P.v.d.W., L.D.B., V.G., J.A.H., B.W.H., R.M. and W.Z. contributed feedback on the various versions of this manuscript and on the telescope proposal.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Renske Smit.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature24631

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