Scientists believe that for about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was dark - filled primarily with hydrogen.
The findings provide evidence that the first stars may have started turning on around 180 million years after the Big Bang. "I realised that this surprising signal indicates the presence of two actors: the first stars, and dark matter", said Barkana.
It was only over the course of the subsequent 50 million to 100 million years that gravity began to pull together the densest regions of gas, forming the very first stars, which were massive and short-lived. "It's causing hydrogen to start absorbing the background radiation, so you start seeing it in silhouette, at particular radio frequencies". The CMB is dimmer than expected, indicating that the filaments may have been colder than expected, possibly from interactions with dark matter.
"This is really the only possible probe that we have of the time before the stars", says Bowman, who is an experimental astrophysicist at Arizona State University in Tempe.
That field has led to revelatory findings regarding the structure of the early universe. "It would affect cosmological models and require theorists to put their thinking caps back on to figure out how that would happen". The researchers published a paper in the journal Nature.
In a project dubbed EDGES (short for Experiment to Detect Global EoR Signature), Bowman and his colleagues chose to take a different approach.
"The measurement is very challenging", Bowman said.
To find this unknown signal, the team of researchers used an Earth-based instrument called a radio spectrometer, located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia.
The current version of EDGES is the result of years of design iteration and instrument calibration in order to reach the levels of precision necessary for successfully achieving an extremely hard measurement.
The universe's history has been rewritten.
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Scientists may have caught a glimpse of the earliest stars in the universe. Once stars formed, they emitted ultraviolet light into the dark areas between them. These changes induced hydrogen's single electron to spin in alignment or opposite to the spin of its proton, causing hydrogen as a whole to "decouple" from the background radiation. The calculation that allows to relate the frequency of the signal with the age of the Universe is derived from the fact that the Universe is expanding. Luckily for us, one such array, the SKA, the largest telescope in the world, is already under construction - if it picks up on the signal, the SKA "would confirm that the first stars indeed revealed dark matter", concludes Prof.
"There is a great technical challenge to making this detection, as sources of noise can be a thousand times brighter than the signal they are looking for. It is like being in the middle of a hurricane and trying to hear the flap of a hummingbird's wing".
Everyone agrees that another group working independently needs to confirm the existence of this radio signal from the early universe.
Prof. Bowman and colleagues reported the detection of a radio wave signal at a frequency of 78 megahertz.
"To solve it, we must travel back in time", he says.
Specifically, the researchers observed a flattened absorption profile, or a dip in the radio waves, at around 78 megahertz.
After the Big Bang, it was dark and cold. "In terms of a direct detection of a signal from the hydrogen gas itself, this has got to be the earliest", study co-author Alan Rogers from MIT said in a statement Wednesday. "Extra-cold material naturally explains the strong radio signal", said Barkana.
Barkana predicts that the dark matter produced a specific pattern of radio waves that can be detected with a large array of radio antennas.
The mysterious dark matter can not be directly observed using our current technology, even though it is thought to account for 85 percent of all the mass in the observable universe.
"And one of the exciting things actually that we're reporting is that this signal is twice as big as expected", Bowman said. That's partly because there aren't a lot of stars to see in this early era. This project shows that a promising new technique can work and has paved the way for decades of new astrophysical discoveries. "These new results move that date to less than half the previous age", he said. "We see the Sun as it was eight minutes ago, while the immensely distant first stars in the universe appear to us on Earth as they were billions of years in the past", Barkana said. "This is the first time anybody's had any direct observational data from the epoch". Credits: N.R.Fuller/National Science Foundation.
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