However, numerous heavier elements we take for granted today (such as carbon and oxygen) did not exist before the first stars. Measuring that shift in frequencies reveals that the light set out 13.3 billion years ago, when the universe was just 550 million years old.
Hailing from a galaxy known as MACS1149-JD1, the oxygen signature dates back to about 500 million years after the Big Bang.
"I was thrilled to see the signal of the distant oxygen in the ALMA data", says Takuya Hashimoto, the lead author of the new paper and a researcher at both Osaka Sangyo University and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. He also is a member of the ALMA research team.
Following the Big Bang, the chemical composition of the universe was starkly limited, with not even a trace of elements like oxygen.
Pinpointing this period of star birth - which gave rise to oxygen, carbon and other elements in the Universe - is a holy grail for astronomers chasing down the beginning of everything.
The discovery of the oldest oxygen signal ever detected by any telescope is a tantalising one, as the very first stars are expected to be composed mainly of the lightest elements that were around in the Universe at that time; hydrogen and helium.
With the help of the Atacama large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, astronomers have detected the earliest signs of oxygen (red) distributed in the galaxy MACS1149-JD1. The distance to the galaxy determined from this observation is consistent with the distance from the oxygen observation.
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The researchers confirmed the distance of the galaxy with observations from ground-based telescopes in Chile and reconstructed the earlier history of MACS1149-JD1 using infrared data from orbiting telescopes.
"This galaxy is seen at a time when the Universe was only 500 million years old and yet it already has a population of mature stars".
A supernova occurs when a star explodes, shooting debris and particles into space.
The findings pose problems for theorists because other evidence points to a later start for the first stars. The gas then fell back into the galaxy leading to the second burst of star formation. They measured the frequency of a peak in the galaxy's spectrum that comes from ionized oxygen gas.
The maturity of the stars seen in MACS1149-JD1 raises the question of when the very first galaxies emerged from total darkness, an epoch astronomers romantically term "cosmic dawn".
The study authors conclude "it may be possible to detect such early episodes of star formation in similar galaxies with future telescopes". ALMA has been used previously to break the record for the most distant known galaxy, it did so twice in 2016 finding galaxies 13.1 billion light-years away, and 13.2 billion light-years away. Several months later, Nicolas Laporte of University College London used ALMA to detect oxygen at 13.2 billion light-years away. Now, the two teams combined their efforts and achieved this new record, which corresponds to a redshift of 9.1. "We are therefore able to use this galaxy to probe into an earlier, completely uncharted period of cosmic history". "We are eager to find oxygen in even farther parts of the universe and expand the horizon of human knowledge". But for the galaxy to have enough oxygen to be visible, it must have been creating stars for around 250 million years before that, making it one of the earliest known star-producing galaxies.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is not your standard, run-of-the-mill telescope.