Young French astronomer Johan Richard was able to fulfil many young boys' dreams to explore the Universe… through the eye of a telescope, and discovered that the first galaxies may have formed much earlier than thought – just 200 million years or so after the Universe's explosive birth. And his bold journey continues...
'A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away...' This phrase in the opening crawl of the Star Wars films has captivated young minds for decades with its promise of space-age mystery, adventure and discovery. And Johan Richard, at just 32, has achieved just that.
This young French astronomer has boldly gone (borrowing from another classic science fiction epic, Star Trek) where few have ventured before: back to almost the beginning of time as we know it.
In 2011, Dr Richard led a team of researchers who discovered a distant galaxy at the time the Universe was around 950 million years old which first began forming just 200 million years after the Big Bang, the birth event of our Universe, according to one widely accepted theory – which is very early, considering that the Universe is now about 13.7 billion years old.
In addition to great science and scientific detective work, the stars were quite literally aligned just right for the team. The distant galaxy, which is visible through a galaxy cluster called Abell 383, would not normally be observable, even with the largest and most powerful telescopes. However, the chance alignment of the galaxy and other astronomical events enabled Dr Richard's team to make detailed observations.
Their surprising discovery could help improve understanding of the young Universe and clear the mist surrounding some fundamental questions about its early evolution. "In this galaxy, we found that it was composed of old stars, which was very surprising for a galaxy in a young Universe," he explains. "This challenges theories of how soon galaxies formed and evolved in the first years of the Universe. It could even help solve the mystery of how the hydrogen fog that filled the early Universe was cleared."
The discovery is also expected to shed light on how galaxies closer to home formed.
The astronomical potential of EU support
The research which led Dr Richard along the road to his impressive discovery was carried out thanks to an EU-funded fellowship grant. "I benefited a lot from the Marie Curie programme. It let me develop my own research which led to this discovery," the French scientist points out.
Dr Richard was involved in an Intra-European Fellowship for career development (IEF), which allows experienced researchers to acquire new research skills or to work in other sectors. His research project, Highzlens, studied very high 'red-shift' galaxies through the NASA/ESA Hubble space telescope. Red shift is a key concept for astronomers, according to the European Space Agency. Taken literally it means "the wavelength of the light is stretched, so the light is seen as 'shifted' towards the red part of the spectrum".
"One of the big advantages of the IEF compared with other post-doctoral positions is that the researcher receives independent funding and can think about the longer term and larger scale," believes Dr Richard who undertook his fellowship at Durham University, UK.
The researcher is based at the University of Lyon, France and, thanks to a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant, he has been able to put together his own research group. "We are building here one of the most powerful cameras which we are going to put on the … Very Large Telescope based in Chile," he says. "I am very proud to be part of the team building such an instrument, and I'm looking forward to using it in the near future."