Astronomers find a way to see first stars through the fog of early universe

Astronomers have created a method to see through the fog of early universe and detect light coming from the first stars or galaxies.

It will be used by researchers to shed light on the mystery of how the universe developed after the big bang.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – a telescope due to be completed by the end of the decade – will likely be able to make images of the earliest light in the universe.

Current telescopes are limited by thick hydrogen clouds.

We are excited to see the system perform and have complete confidence that we will make that crucial detection.

University of Stellenbosch, Professor Dirk de Villiers

The signal that astronomers aim to detect is expected to be approximately 100,000 times weaker than other radio signals coming also from the sky – for example, radio signals originating in our own galaxy.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge now have a method to see through clouds and other sky noise signals. This avoids the negative effects of radio telescope distortions.

Their new method is part of the Reach (Radio Experiment for the Analysis of Cosmic Hydrogen). It will enable astronomers to see the earliest stars in the interaction with the hydrogen clouds.

This is how experts infer landscapes by looking at shadows within the fog.

The paper’s lead author, Dr Eloy de Lera Acedo, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, said: “At the time when the first stars formed, the universe was mostly empty and composed mostly of hydrogen and helium.”

He also added: “Because of gravity, the elements eventually came together and the conditions were right for nuclear fusion, which is what formed the first stars.

“But they were surrounded by clouds of so-called neutral hydrogen, which absorb light really well, so it’s hard to detect or observe the light behind the clouds directly.”

The new method analyzes data from multiple antennas, across a wider frequency spectrum than other equivalent current instruments.

The telescope’s construction is being finalised at the Karoo radio reserve in South Africa, a location chosen for its excellent conditions for radio observations of the sky.

It is not possible to create interference in radio frequencies by humans, such as FM and television signals.

Dr. Dirk de Villiers is the co-lead of this project at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. “Although the antenna technology used for this instrument is rather simple, the harsh and remote deployment environment, and the strict tolerances required in the manufacturing, make this a very challenging project to work on.”

He also added: “We are extremely excited to see how well the system will perform, and have full confidence we’ll make that elusive detection.”

These findings are published in Nature Astronomy journal.

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