In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists say they have found a signal from some of the earliest stars in the universe, giving us an unparalleled glimpse into the dawn of the cosmos.
The signals originate from hydrogen gas from just 180 million years after the Big Bang, itself 13.8 billion years ago. It suggests that the first generation of stars in the universe formed around this time.
A study describing the findings, 12 years in the making, is published in Nature.
"Finding this miniscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe,” Judd Bowman from Arizona State University, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
"Telescopes cannot see far enough to directly image such ancient stars, but we've seen when they turned on in radio waves arriving from space."
About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, our universe was a dark place devoid of stars and galaxies. But over the next 100 million years, gravity began to pull gas together, until it collapsed to form the first stars. When these burst into life, they brought the universe out of its so-called dark ages and began the Epoch of Reionization (EoR).
Our current best telescopes have only been able to see stars dating back to about 300 million years after the Big Bang. While we haven’t seen the stars directly here, it is indirect evidence for their existence, something that is certain to open up whole new avenues of research.
From the detection we cannot tell much about the stars themselves, such as their size or mass. However, it’s hoped that future detections building on this research may be able to do just that, and give us a better idea of what they looked like.