Astronomers use remote antenna in Australia to detect the first stars

Artist's rendering of how the first stars in the universe may have looked

Artist's rendering of how the first stars in the universe may have looked

These are radio waves produced by the Big Bang.

And then, suddenly, there was light. Now, astronomers from MIT and Arizona State University have peered right back to the "Cosmic Dawn" - the time when the first stars were beginning to fire up - by picking up an extremely faint radio signal that marks the earliest evidence of hydrogen, just 180 million years after the Big Bang. In a companion study, he argues that the discrepancy can be explained by dark matter, a theoretical type of matter that helps explains our observations of the universe.

"Sources of noise can be 10,000 times brighter than the signal".

The signal showed unexpectedly cold temperatures and an unusually pronounced wave.

Cooling from dark matter in the current universe would be drowned out by the heating effects of the likes of stars and black holes, so the cosmic dawn offers a unique opportunity to study dark matter's heating effects that can not be observed today.

Antony Schinckel, CSIRO's Head of Square Kilometre Array Construction and Planning said, "Finding this signal is an absolute triumph, a triumph made possible by the extreme attention to detail by Judd's team, combined with the exceptional radio quietness of the site".

The signal announced today was detected in 2015 and 2016, but needed two-plus years of checking before the group could release its result. "And what we were seeing was different", says Raul Monsalve of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"It's a time of the universe we really don't know anything about", Bowman said, describing the discovery as being "like the first sentence" in an early chapter of the history of the cosmos.

As radio waves hit the antenna, they are amplified by a receiver before being digitised to store them as a computer file, like FM and TV receivers transform signals.

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In the early years, the Universe was a very dark, very cold place. Hundreds of thousands of years passed before the first atoms of hydrogen and helium began to stick together.

Astronomers looked at a specific wavelength. "And if they both see the same thing, then, 'Voila!'" he says. If there were no stars, they would see another.

Astronomers with the Experiment to Detect the Global EoR (Epoch of Reionization) Signature (EDGES) project reported today (Feb. 28) that they've spotted the apparent fingerprints of the universe's first stars.

"Finding the impact of the first stars in that cacophony would be like trying to hear the flap of a hummingbird's wing from inside a hurricane", Dr. Kurczynski said in an NSF video. They repositioned the antenna, tested it in the lab with simulated radio sky, even built a copy of the instrument to demonstrate that the experiment was reproducible.

"This is the first real signal that stars are starting to form, and starting to affect the medium around them", says Alan Rogers, co-author of the new study. Scientists believe that these early stars were massive, blue, and lived for a brief time. But now that astronomers know where and how to look, others will confirm this and learn more, Bowman said. "They are the seeds for the first galaxies, and they may be essential to understand the formation of the supermassive black holes that lurk in the centers of most galaxies" Heger, who has spent 20 years studying the first stars, said.

In theory, dark matter shouldn't interact with regular matter, but the new study shows evidence that the hydrogen that dominated the early universe was actually much colder than expected, possibly implying that dark matter could have interacted with that early gas.

One explanation may involve an interaction between "normal" and "dark" matter, taking physics into a previously unseen realm. Everything "glowed" with radiation left over from the Big Bang. "The existence of some other coupling would indicate new physics and help decipher the enigmatic nature of dark matter", Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astrophysicist Avi Loeb said via email.

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"It suggests that the first stars were producing more intense light than previously expected", added Professor Carole Haswell, of Open University, who was also not involved.

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