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Scientists can revise the theory of the birth of the Universe
04 March 2018, 01:52 | Bernice Figueroa
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The research is based on changes in the wavelengths produced by radio signals. Bowman said these stars would have differed from stars today because they formed from pristine primordial gas created after the Big Bang.
"This is one of the most technically challenging radio astronomy experiments ever attempted".
"If that idea is confirmed", Bowman says, "then we've learned something new and fundamental about the mysterious dark matter that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe".
Using a radio antenna not much larger than a refrigerator, the researchers discovered that ancient suns were active within 180 million years of the Big Bang. Light basically didn't exist, and the hydrogen gas that made up the majority of the interstellar medium was virtually indistinguishable from the cosmic background radiation, left over from the Big Bang.
"This is the first time we've seen any signal from this early in the Universe, aside from the afterglow of the Big Bang", Judd Bowman, an astronomer at Arizona State University who led the work, said in a statement.
The team measured a dip that covered a range of times in the cosmos - most dramatically back to when the Universe itself was only 180 million years old, compared to its grand age today of 13.9 billion years.
A timeline of the universe, updated to show when the first stars emerged.
Neutral hydrogen emits radiation at a frequency of 1,420 MHz, but thanks to the ongoing expansion of the Universe and the Doppler Effect, that radiation shifts to a lower frequency.
Astronomers had been predicting this phenomenon for almost 20 years and searching for it for ten years. Even the tiniest error in calibration or measurement could distort the signal, and although the researchers are confident they've done their best to ensure that no error slipped in, they'd also welcome any confirmation.
Such evidence had been expected, but not for years to come.
The small radio telescope used to record the signal.YouTube screenshot/NSF. It's only been published now after rigorous checking.
The reason scientists don't know for certain when the stars first started shining is because traditional telescopes can't see that far back in time. But Bowman and his colleagues soon found the predicted signal at roughly the frequency they expected.
The pattern of the radio signal seems to suggest that the hydrogen gas in the early universe was much colder than expected. "We have never seen the light of the first stars, and this is its signature".
How do you make the atoms colder?
"The only way to cool [the gas] is for something else, which is even colder, to take heat away", Rennan Barkana told Space.com by email. The finding has the potential "to reorient the search for dark matter", says Barkana.
Finding dark matter particles could require updating the Standard Model with futuristic theories such as "supersymmetry", which postulates the existence of a heavier sibling for every particle in the Universe, or extra dimensions.
As for the nature of this particle, and its mass, we can only guess.
A note of caution is warranted. The discovery is reported in the March 1, 2018 issue of the journal Nature. The sensitivity of their aerial needs to be exquisitely calibrated all across the bandpass. These researchers with a small radio antenna in the desert have seen farther than the most powerful space telescopes, opening a new window on the early universe, he added.
Today's publications are exciting news for Australia in particular. Australian national legislation limits the use of radio transmitters within 161.5 miles (260 km) of the site, substantially reducing interference which could otherwise drown out sensitive astronomy observations. The Murchison Widefield Array is in operation right now, and future upgrades could provide exactly such a map.
The newly-detected radio signal marks the closest astronomers have seen to that moment. This signal is the first thing anyone has spotted in the interval between that galaxy was formed and the so-called cosmic microwave background, 380,000 years after the birth of the Universe.
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