And Then There Was Light: Looking for the First Stars in the Universe

Dr. Nichole Barry at The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). (Image: Ruby Byrne)

Astronomers are closing in on a signal that has been traveling across the Universe for 12 billion years, bringing them nearer to understanding the life and death of the first stars.

In a paper on the preprint site arXiv, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, a team led by Dr. Nichole Barry from Australia’s University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D) reports a 10-fold improvement on data gathered by the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) — a collection of 4096 dipole antennas set in the remote hinterland of Western Australia.

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Watch this video of the Epoch of Reionisation visualization:

The MWA, which started operating in 2013, was built specifically to detect electromagnetic radiation emitted by neutral hydrogen — a gas that comprised most of the infant Universe in the period when the soup of disconnected protons and neutrons spawned by the Big Bang started to cool down.

Eventually, these hydrogen atoms began to clump together to form stars — the very first ones to exist — initiating a major phase in the evolution of the Universe known as the Epoch of Reionisation, or EoR. Dr. Barry explained:

The neutral hydrogen that dominated space and time before and in the early period of the EoR radiated at a wavelength of approximately 21 centimeters. Stretched now to somewhere above two meters because of the expansion of the Universe, the signal persists — and detecting it remains the theoretically best way to probe conditions in the early days of the Cosmos.

However, doing so is fiendishly difficult.

ASTRO-3D member and co-author Associate Professor Cathryn Trott, from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University in Western Australia, explained:

In other words, the signals recorded by the MWA — and other EoR-hunting devices, such as the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array in South Africa and the Low-Frequency Array in The Netherlands — are extremely messy.

In this image of the Epoch of Reionisation, neutral hydrogen, in red, is gradually ionized by the first stars, shown in white. The image was made by the University of Melbourne’s Dark-ages Reionisation And Galaxy Observables from Numerical Simulations (DRAGONS) program. (Image: Paul Geil and Simon Mutch)

Using 21 hours of raw data, Dr. Barry, co-lead author Mike Wilensky, from the University of Washington in the U.S., and colleagues explored new techniques to refine the analysis and exclude consistent sources of signal contamination, including ultra-faint interference generated by radio broadcasts on Earth.

The result was a level of precision that significantly reduced the range in which the EoR may have begun, pulling in constraints by almost an order of magnitude. Professor Trott said:

Dr. Barry said the results represented not only a step forward in the global quest to explore the infant Universe, but also established a framework for further research, adding:

The research was conducted by multiple ASTRO-3D researchers based at the University of Melbourne, Curtin University, the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division in Epping, NSW, and the University of Washington.

Provided by: ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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