Scientists have discovered a new way to detect the first stars when the universe was only 200 million years old and still emerging from its dark ages.
The research will be unveiled for the first time by Professor Rennan Barkana from Tel Aviv University at a conference organized by Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool and sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, bringing together nearly a hundred astrophysicists from eighteen countries to discuss the latest results on the most distant and powerful explosions in the universe, gamma-ray bursts.Gamma-ray bursts are brief, unpredictable bursts of radiation that occur anywhere on the sky and which are thought to be associated with the death of a massive star and the formation of a black hole in the early universe.
Until recently, astronomers believed that it was impossible to observe stars when the universe was so young and just coming out of its so-called dark age -- a time when the universe was permeated by hydrogen gas and before any light sources such as stars had switched on.
Now, however, scientists have used powerful computer models to show that an expected difference in the speed of gas and dark matter causes the first stars to clump together into a prominent cosmic web.
“The discovery of these web-like structures now makes it feasible for radio astronomers to detect the 21-cm wavelength light from the first stars when the universe was only 200 million years old and still emerging from its dark ages”, said Dr. Barkana.
Professor Carole Mundell, from LJMU’s Astrophysics Research Institute, who is the lead organizer of the conference said, “This result is very exciting because it opens a new window on an era that has always been considered challenging for observers.”
LJMU scientists from the Astrophysics Research Institute are at the forefront of gamma-ray research, with the robotic Liverpool Telescope on the Canary island of La Palma having a uniquely powerful capability to react rapidly to notifications from gamma-ray detector satellites -- such as NASA’s Swift -- and catch the optical counterpart and fading afterglow of the explosion.
“Since the launch of NASA’s Swift satellite in 2004, over 700 new gamma-ray bursts have been detected out to the edges of the observable universe. Delegates will present the state-of-the-art in our understanding of black holes and their environments. We have an exciting agenda covering topics such as the very first stars in the universe, the nature of space-time and the detection of exotic particles,” said Professor Carole Mundell.
Professor Rennan Barkana’s research results will be published on Nature online on Wednesday 20th June.