Astronomers find distant gas clouds with leftovers of the first stars
3 May 2023
Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), researchers have found for the first time the fingerprints left by the explosion of the first stars in the Universe. They detected three distant gas clouds whose chemical composition matches what we expect from the first stellar explosions. These findings bring us one step closer to understanding the nature of the first stars that formed after the Big Bang.
“For the first time ever, we were able to identify the chemical traces of the explosions of the first stars in very distant gas clouds,” says Andrea Saccardi, a PhD student at the Observatoire de Paris - PSL, who led this study during his master’s thesis at the University of Florence.
Researchers think that the first stars that formed in the Universe were very different from the ones we see today. When they appeared 13.5 billion years ago, they contained just hydrogen and helium, the simplest chemical elements in nature . These stars, thought to be tens or hundreds of times more massive than our Sun, quickly died in powerful explosions known as supernovae, enriching the surrounding gas with heavier elements for the first time. Later generations of stars were born out of that enriched gas, and in turn ejected heavier elements as they too died. But the very first stars are now long gone, so how can researchers learn more about them? “Primordial stars can be studied indirectly by detecting the chemical elements they dispersed in their environment after their death,” says Stefania Salvadori, Associate Professor at the University of Florence and co-author of the study published today in the Astrophysical Journal.
Using data taken with ESO’s VLT in Chile, the team found three very distant gas clouds, seen when the Universe was just 10–15% of its current age, and with a chemical fingerprint matching what we expect from the explosions of the first stars. Depending on the mass of these early stars and the energy of their explosions, these first supernovae released different chemical elements such as carbon, oxygen and magnesium, which are present in the outer layers of stars. But some of these explosions were not energetic enough to expel heavier elements like iron, which is found only in the cores of stars. To search for the telltale sign of these very first stars that exploded as low energy supernovae, the team therefore looked for distant gas clouds poor in iron but rich in the other elements. And they found just that: three faraway clouds in the early Universe with very little iron but plenty of carbon and other elements — the fingerprint of the explosions of the very first stars.
This peculiar chemical composition has also been observed in many old stars in our own galaxy, which researchers consider to be second-generation stars that formed directly from the ‘ashes’ of the first ones. This new study has found such ashes in the early Universe, thus adding a missing piece to this puzzle. “Our discovery opens new avenues to indirectly study the nature of the first stars, fully complementing studies of stars in our galaxy,” explains Salvadori.
To detect and study these distant gas clouds, the team used light beacons known as quasars — very bright sources powered by supermassive black holes at the centres of faraway galaxies. As the light from a quasar travels through the Universe, it passes through gas clouds where different chemical elements leave an imprint on the light.
To find these chemical imprints, the team analysed data on several quasars observed with the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT. X-shooter splits light into an extremely wide range of wavelengths, or colours, which makes it a unique instrument with which to identify many different chemical elements in these distant clouds.
This study opens new windows for next generation telescopes and instruments, like ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and its high-resolution ArmazoNes high Dispersion Echelle Spectrograph (ANDES). “With ANDES at the ELT we will be able to study many of these rare gas clouds in greater detail, and we will be able to finally uncover the mysterious nature of the first stars,” concludes Valentina D’Odorico, a researcher at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy and co-author of the study.
 Minutes after the Big Bang the only elements present in the Universe were the three lightest ones: hydrogen, helium and very small traces of lithium. Heavier elements were formed much later on in stars.
This research was presented in a paper to appear in the Astrophysical Journal (doi: 10.3847/1538-4357/acc39f)
The team is composed of Andrea Saccardi (GEPI, Observatoire de Paris, Université PSL, CNRS, France; Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, University of Florence, Italy [UFlorence]), Stefania Salvadori (UFlorence; INAF – Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Italy), Valentina D’Odorico (Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy; INAF – Osservatorio Astrofisico di Trieste, Italy [INAF Trieste]; IFPU – Institute for Fundamental Physics of the Universe, Italy [IFPU]), Guido Cupani (INAF Trieste; IFPU), Michele Fumagalli (Dipartimento di Fisica G. Occhialini, University of Milano Bicocca, Italy; INAF Trieste), Trystyn A. M. Berg (Dipartimento di Fisica G. Occhialini, University of Milano Bicocca, Italy), George D. Becker (Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of California, USA), Sara Ellison (Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Victoria, Canada), Sebastian Lopez (Departamento de Astronomía, Universidad de Chile, Chile).
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) enables scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe for the benefit of all. We design, build and operate world-class observatories on the ground — which astronomers use to tackle exciting questions and spread the fascination of astronomy — and promote international collaboration in astronomy. Established as an intergovernmental organisation in 1962, today ESO is supported by 16 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO’s headquarters and its visitor centre and planetarium, the ESO Supernova, are located close to Munich in Germany, while the Chilean Atacama Desert, a marvellous place with unique conditions to observe the sky, hosts our telescopes. ESO operates three observing sites: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its Very Large Telescope Interferometer, as well as survey telescopes such as VISTA. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. Together with international partners, ESO operates ALMA on Chajnantor, a facility that observes the skies in the millimetre and submillimetre range. At Cerro Armazones, near Paranal, we are building “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope. From our offices in Santiago, Chile we support our operations in the country and engage with Chilean partners and society.
- Research paper
- Photos of the VLT
- For journalists: subscribe to receive our releases under embargo in your language
- For scientists: got a story? Pitch your research
GEPI, Observatoire de Paris, Université PSL, CNRS
Cell: +39 3408796870
University of Florence
Tel: +39 055 2755222
INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste
Tel: +39 040 3199217
Juan Carlos Muñoz Mateos
ESO Media Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6176