University of Tel Aviv peers back to the earliest midst of times thanks to ‘reflections from atoms’
Researchers have found a way to detect galaxies further back than ever before.
We believe the universe to be nearly 14 billion years old – and astrophysicists from a university believed they have found a way to see how the universe looked just 180million years of its existence.
Current telescopes can only see galaxies about 700 million years old – other than occasional glimpses beyond by the Hubble telescope – and only when the galaxy is unusually large or as the result of a big event like a stellar explosion.
But the international team of scientists led by researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a method for detecting galaxies of stars that formed when the universe was in its infancy.
Their work, published in the journal Nature, uses radio telescopes to seek out radio waves emitted by hydrogen atoms, which were abundant in the early days of the universe.
Emitting waves measuring about eight inches (21 centimeters) long, the atoms reflect the radiation of the stars, making their emission detectable by radio telescopes, explains Professor Barkana.
According to Barkana, these waves show a specific pattern in the sky, a clear signature of the early galaxies, which were one-millionth the size of galaxies today.
Differences in the motion of dark matter and gas from the early period of the universe, which affect the formation of stars, produce a specific fluctuation pattern that makes it much easier to distinguish these early waves from bright local radio emissions.
The intensity of waves from this early era depends on the temperature of the gas, allowing researchers to begin to piece together a rough map of the galaxies in an area of the sky. If the gas is very hot, it means that there are many stars there; if cooler, there are fewer stars, explains Prof. Barkana.
These initial steps into the mysterious origins of the universe will allow radio astronomers to reconstruct for the first time what the early universe looked like, specifically in terms of the distribution of stars and galaxies across the sky, he believes.
This field of astronomical research, now being called ’21-centimeter cosmology’, is just getting underway.
Five different international collaborations are building radio telescopes to detect these types of emissions, currently focusing on the era around 500 million years after the Big Bang.
Equipment can also be specifically designed for detecting signals from the earlier eras, says Barkana.
He hopes that this area of research will illuminate the enigmatic period between the birth of the universe and modern times, and allow for the opportunity to test predictions about the early days of the universe.
‘We know a lot about the pristine universe, and we know a lot about the universe today.
‘There is an unknown era in between when there was hot gas and the first formation of stars. Now, we are going into this era and into the unknown,’ says Barkana.
He expects surprises along the way, for example involving the properties of early stars, and that observations will reveal a more complicated cosmological reality than was predicted by their models.