Those images showed everyone that what appears to be a tiny, empty part of the sky contains thousands of galaxies, some dating back to the Universe’s early days. Each of those galaxies can have hundreds of billions of stars. These early galaxies formed only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. The images inspired awe in the human minds that took the time to understand them. And they’re part of history now.
The upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (NGRST) will capture its own version of those historical images but in wide-angle. To whet our appetites for the NGRST’s image, a group of astrophysicists have created a simulation to show us what it’ll look like.
Thanks to the most advanced telescopes, astronomers today can see what objects looked like 13 billion years ago, roughly 800 million years after the Big Bang. Unfortunately, they are still unable to pierce the veil of the cosmic Dark Ages, a period that lasted from 370,000 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, where the Universe was shrowded with light-obscuring neutral hydrogen. Because of this, our telescopes cannot see when the first stars and galaxies formed – ca., 100 to 500 million years after the Big Bang.
This period is known as the Cosmic Dawn and represents the “final frontier” of cosmological surveys to astronomers. This November, NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch to space. Thanks to its sensitivity and advanced infrared optics, Webb will be the first observatory capable of witnessing the birth of galaxies. According to a new study from the Université de Genève, Switzerland, the ability to see the Cosmic Dawn will provide answers to today’s greatest cosmological mysteries.
In Australia and South Africa, there are a series of radio telescopes that will be soon joined by a number of newly-constructed facilities to form the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). Once established, the SKA will have a collecting area that measures a million square meters (close to 2 million square yards). It will also be 50 times more sensitive than any radio telescope currently in operation, and be able to conduct surveys ten thousand times faster.
During a historic meeting that took place on June 29th, 2021, the member states that make up the SKAO Council voted to commence construction. By the late 2020s, when it’s expected to gather its first light, the array will consist of thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennas. These will enable it to conduct all kinds of scientific operations, from scanning the earliest periods in the Universe to searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
Since time immemorial, philosophers and scholars have contemplated the beginning of time and even tried to determine when all things began. It’s only been in the age of modern astronomy that we’ve come close to answering that question with a fair degree of certainty. According to the most widely-accepted cosmological models, the Universe began with the Bang Bang roughly 13.8 billion years ago.
Even so, astronomers are still uncertain about what the early Universe looked like since this period coincided with the cosmic “Dark Ages.” Therefore, astronomers keep pushing the limits of their instruments to see when the earliest galaxies formed. Thanks to new research by an international team of astronomers, the oldest and most distant galaxy observed in our Universe to date (GN-z11) has been identified!
According to the most widely accepted cosmological theories, the first stars in the Universe formed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Unfortunately, astronomers have been unable to “see” them since their emergence coincided during the cosmological period known as the “Dark Ages.” During this period, which ended about 13 billion years ago, clouds of gas filled the Universe that obscured visible and infrared light.
However, astronomers have learned that light from this era can be detected as faint radio signals. It’s for this reason that radio telescopes like the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) were built. Using data obtained by this array last year, an international team of researchers is scouring the most precise radio data to date from the early Universe in an attempt to see exactly when the cosmic “Dark Ages” ended.
By looking deeper into space (and farther back in time), astronomers and cosmologists continue to push the boundaries of what is known about the Universe. Thanks to improvements in instrumentation and observation techniques, we are now at the point where astronomers are able to observe some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe – which in turn is providing vital clues about how our Universe evolved.
A team of scientists working with the Murchison Widefield Array (WMA) radio telescope are trying to find the signal from the Universe’s first stars. Those first stars formed after the Universe’s Dark Ages. To find their first light, the researchers are looking for the signal from neutral hydrogen, the gas that dominated the Universe after the Dark Ages.
The universe wasn’t always such a well-lit place. It had its own Dark Ages, back in the days before stars and galaxies formed. One of the big questions in astronomy concerns how stars and galaxies shaped the very early days of the Universe. The problem is, there’s no visible light travelling through the Universe from this time period.
According to the Big Bang Theory of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago as all matter in the Universe began to expand from a single point of infinite density. Over the next few billion years, the fundamental forces of the Universe began to separate from each other and subatomic particles and atoms formed. In time, this first stars and galaxies formed, giving rise to the large-scale structure of the Universe.
However, it was only by roughly 1 billion years after the Big Bang that the Universe began to become transparent. By about 12 billion years ago, intergalactic space was filled with gas that was much less transparent than it is now, with variations from place to place. To address why this was, a team of astronomers recently used the world’s largest telescope to search for galaxies of young stars in a huge volume of space.
For the sake of their study, the team used the Subaru Telescope – the world’s largest telescope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii – to examine a 500 million light-year volume of space as it existed roughly 12 billion years ago. Using this data, the team considered two possible models that could account for the variations in transparency that astronomers have been seeing during this cosmic epoch.
On the one hand, if the region contained a small number of galaxies, the team would conclude that startlight could not penetrate very far through the intergalactic gas. On the other hand, if it contained an unusually large number of galaxies, this would indicate that the region had cooled significantly over the previous several hundred million years. Prior to their observations, Beck and his team were expecting to find that it was the latter.
However, what they found was that the region contained far fewer galaxies than expected – which indicated that the opaqueness of the region was due to a lack of starlight. As Steven Furlanetto, a UCLA professor of astronomy and a co-author of the research, explained in a recent UCLA press release:
“It was a rare case in astronomy where two competing models, both of which were compelling in their own way, offered precisely opposite predictions, and we were lucky that those predictions were testable… It is not that the opacity is a cause of the lack of galaxies. Instead, it’s the other way around.”
In addition to addressing an enduring mystery in astronomy, this study also has implications for our understanding of how the Universe evolved over time. According to our current cosmological models, the period that took place roughly 380,000 t0 150 million years after the Big Bang is known as the “Dark Ages”. Most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons at this time, which means radiation from this period is undetectable by our current instruments.
However, by about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the first stars and galaxies had formed. It is further believed that ultraviolet light from these first galaxies filled the Universe and is what allowed for the gas in deep space to become transparent. This would have occurred earlier in regions with more galaxies, the astronomers concluded, hence why there are variations in transparency.
In short, if more ultraviolet radiation from galaxies would lead to greater transparency in the early Universe, then the existence of fewer nearby galaxies would cause certain regions to be murkier. In the future, Becker and his team hope to further study this region of space and others like it in the hope that it will reveal clues about how the first galaxies illuminated the Universe during that early period, which remains a subject of inquiry at this point.
This research is also expected to shed more light on how the early Universe evolved, gradually giving rise to the one that are familiar with today. And as next-generation instruments are able to probe deeper into space (and hence, further back in time), we just may come to understand how existence as we know it all unfolded.
When astronomers first noted the detection of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) in 2007 (aka. the Lorimer Burst), they were both astounded and intrigued. This high-energy burst of radio pulses, which lasted only a few milliseconds, appeared to be coming from outside of our galaxy. Since that time, astronomers have found evidence of many FRBs in previously-recorded data, and are still speculating as to what causes them.
Thanks to subsequent discoveries and research, astronomers now know that FRBs are far more common than previously thought. In fact, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), FRBs may occur once every second within the observable Universe. If true, FRBs could be a powerful tool for researching the origins and evolution of the cosmos.
As noted, FRBs have remained something of a mystery since they were first discovered. Not only do their causes remain unknown, but much about their true nature is still not understood. As Dr. Fialkov told Universe Today via email:
“FRBs (or fast radio bursts) are astrophysical signals of an undetermined nature. The observed bursts are short (or millisecond duration), bright pulses in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum (at GHz frequencies). Only 24 bursts have been observed so far and we still do not know for sure which physical processes trigger them. The most plausible explanation is that they are launched by rotating magnetized neutron stars. However, this theory is to be confirmed.”
For the sake of their study, Fialkov and Loeb relied on observations made by multiple telescopes of the repeating fast radio burst known as FRB 121102. This FRB was first observed in 2012 by researchers using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and has since been confirmed to be coming from a galaxy located 3 billion light years away in the direction of the Auriga constellation.
Since it was discovered, additional bursts have been detected coming from its location, making FRB 121102 the only known example of a repeating FRB. This repetitive nature has also allowed astronomers to conduct more detailed studies of it than any other FRB. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email, these and other reasons made it an ideal target for their study:
“FRB 121102 is the only FRB for which a host galaxy and a distance were identified. It is also the only repeating FRB source from which we detected hundreds of FRBs by now. The radio spectrum of its FRBs is centered on a characteristic frequency and not covering a very broad band. This has important implications for the detectability of such FRBs, because in order to find them the radio observatory needs to be tuned to their frequency.”
Based on what is known about FRB 121102, Fialkov and Loeb conducted a series of calculations that assumed that it’s behavior was representative of all FRBs. They then projected how many FRBs would exist across the entire sky and determined that within the observable Universe, a FRB would likely be taking place once every second. As Dr. Fialkov explained:
“Assuming that FRBs are produced by galaxies of a particular type (e.g., similar to FRB 121102) we can calculate how many FRBs have to be produced by each galaxy to explain the existing observations (i.e., 2000 per sky per day). With this number in mind we can infer the production rate for the entire population of galaxies. This calculation shows that an FRB occurs every second when accounting for all the faint events.”
While the exact nature and origins of FRBs are still unknown – suggestions include rotating neutron stars and even alien intelligence! – Fialkov and Loeb indicate that they could be used to study the structure and evolution of the Universe. If indeed they occur with such regular frequency throughout the cosmos, then more distant sources could act as probes which astronomers would then rely on to plumb the depths of space.
For instance, over vast cosmic distances, there is a significant amount of intervening material that makes it difficult for astronomers to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. Studies of this intervening material could lead to a new estimates of just how dense space is – i.e. how much of it is composed of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy – and how rapidly it is expanding.
And as Prof. Loeb indicated, FRBs could also be used to explore enduring cosmlogical questions, like how the “Dark Age” of the Universe ended:
“FRBs can be used to measure the column of free electrons towards their source. This can be used to measure the density of ordinary matter between galaxies in the present-day universe. In addition, FRBs at early cosmic times can be used to find out when the ultraviolet light from the first stars broke up the primordial atoms of hydrogen left over from the Big Bang into their constituent electrons and protons.”
The “Dark Age”, which occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, was characterized by a “fog” of hydrogen atoms interacting with photons. As a result of this, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments. At present, scientists are still attempting to resolve how the Universe made the transition between these “Dark Ages” and subsequent epochs when the Universe was filled with light.
This period of “reionization”, which took place 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, was when the first stars and quasars formed. It is generally believed that UV light from the first stars in the Universe traveled outwards to ionize the hydrogen gas (thus clearing the fog). A recent study also suggested that black holes that existed in the early Universe created the necessary “winds” that allowed this ionizing radiation to escape.
To this end, FRBs could be used to probe into this early period of the Universe and determine what broke down this “fog” and allowed light to escape. Studying very distant FRBs could allow scientists to study where, when and how this process of “reionization” occurred. Looking ahead, Fialkov and Loeb explained how future radio telescopes will be able to discover many FRBs.
“Future radio observatories, like the Square Kilometer Array, will be sensitive enough to detect FRBs from the first generation of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe,” said Prof. Loeb. “Our work provides the first estimate of the number and properties of the first flashes of radio waves that lit up in the infant universe.”
“[W]e find that a next generation telescope (with a much better sensitivity than the existing ones) is expected to see many more FRBs than what is observed today,” said Dr. Fialkov. “This would allow to characterize the population of FRBs and identify their origin. Understanding the nature of FRBs will be a major breakthrough. Once the properties of these sources are known, FRBs can be used as cosmic beacons to explore the Universe. One application is to study the history of reionization (cosmic phase transition when the inter-galactic gas was ionized by stars).”
It is an inspired thought, using natural cosmic phenomena as research tools. In that respect, using FRBs to probe the most distant objects in space (and as far back in time as we can) is kind of like using quasars as navigational beacons. In the end, advancing our knowledge of the Universe allows us to explore more of it.