The frontiers of astronomy are being pushed regularly these days thanks to next-generation telescopes and scientific collaborations. Even so, astronomers are still waiting to peel back the veil of the cosmic “Dark Ages,” which lasted from roughly 370,000 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, where the Universe was shrouded with light-obscuring neutral hydrogen. The first stars and galaxies formed during this same period (ca. 100 to 500 million years), slowly dispelling the “darkness.” This period is known as the Epoch of Reionization, or as many astronomers call it: Cosmic Dawn.
By probing this period with advanced radio telescopes, astronomers will gain valuable insights into how the first galaxies formed and evolved. This is the purpose of the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA), a radio telescope dedicated to observing the large-scale structure of the cosmos during and before the Epoch of Reionization located in the Karoo desert in South Africa. In a recent paper, the HERA Collaboration reports how it doubled the array’s sensitivity and how their observations will lead to the first 3D map of Cosmic Dawn.
Constraints are critical in any scientific enterprise. If a hypothesis predicts that there should be an observable phenomenon, and there isn’t any trace of it, that’s a pretty clear indication that the hypothesis is wrong. And even false hypotheses still move science forward. So it is with astronomy and, in particular, explorations of the early universe. A paper authored by researchers at Cambridge and colleagues now puts a particularly useful constraint on the development of early galaxies, which has been a hot topic in astronomy as of late.
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.