The fields of astronomy and astrophysics are poised for a revolution in the coming years. Thanks to next-generation observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scientists will finally be able to witness the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe. In effect, they will be able to pierce the veil of the Cosmic Dark Ages, which lasted from roughly 370,000 years to 1 billion years after the Big Bang.
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.
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.
Sometimes it’s easy being an astronomer. When your celestial target is something simple and bright, the game can be pretty straightforward: point your telescope at the thing and just wait for all the juicy photons to pour on in.
But sometimes being an astronomer is tough, like when you’re trying to study the first stars to appear in the universe. They’re much too far away and too faint to see directly with telescopes (even the much-hyped James Webb Space Telescope will only be able to see the first galaxies, an accumulation of light from hundreds of billions of stars). To date, we don’t have any observations of the first stars, which is a major bummer.
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.