Astronomers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan have found “the most distant oxygen ever detected” 13.1 billion light years away from us in a galaxy called SXDF-NB1006-2. Not only is the discovery of oxygen elsewhere exciting, but it provides clues into oxygen’s origin in the universe.
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the astronomers collected data on the galaxy first found four years ago. They’d detected hydrogen, but suspected oxygen might be present as well. They theorized that if they were correct, the galaxy would be going through cosmic reionization, or the process where radiation ionizes gas clouds. They were right: they detected reionization through a predicted light flare visible even this far away, confirming oxygen’s presence in SXDF-NB1006-2.
Such a process occurred in the early days of our universe, so by studying that process in SXDF-NB1006-2, the astronomers could glean insight into the “origin of oxygen.” Lead author Akio K. Inoue told Gizmodo, “These oxygen atoms we found are a kind of the first oxygen ever produced in the Universe, because oxygen did not exist at the Big Bang. In fact, all elements heavier than lithium are produced inside stars and are spread out the Universe when they die. And oxygen and other elements make up dust particles which eventually make up planets and possibly life on them. Therefore, our finding shows the origin of oxygen, one of the most important elements for humans, in this Universe.”
If humans were present on SXDF-NB1006-2, we wouldn’t be able to breathe the oxygen. It’s only present in very small quantities – not even one-tenth of the amount of oxygen in the sun – and as it is “doubly-ionized oxygen atoms,” is not even the type of oxygen we could breathe. However, the astronomers plan to continue their research to probe further into oxygen’s role in the universe.