Spitzer spots universe’s first stars

Space scientists have looked further back in time than ever before and spotted starlight from the earliest days of the universe. Nasa’s Spitzer space telescope detected the faint glow of the first objects ever created, as they were more than 13 billion years ago.

a region in Ursa Major with the foreground stars removed (left)The “heat-seeking” telescope recorded patches of the infrared light splattered right across the sky. Studies show that it comes from clusters of bright, monstrous objects more than 13 billion light-years away.

The record-breaking views back in time are revealed in the latest issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Chief investigator Dr Alexander Kashlinsky, of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, Maryland, said: “We are pushing our telescopes to the limit and are tantalizingly close to getting a clear picture of the very first collections of objects.”

He added: “Whatever these objects are, they are intrinsically incredibly bright and very different from anything in existence today.”

Astronomers believe the objects are either the first stars – humongous stars more than 1,000 times the mass of our sun – or voracious black holes that are consuming gas and spilling out tons of energy.

If the objects are stars, then the observed clusters might be the first mini-galaxies containing the equivalent to about one million suns. The Milky Way galaxy holds the equivalent of approximately 100 billion suns and was probably created when mini-galaxies like these merged.

Scientists believe that space, time and matter originated 13.7 billion years ago in a tremendous explosion called the Big Bang. Results from Spitzer strongly support this theory.

Detecting the glow was a major piece of detective work. Scientists first carefully had to remove the light from all foreground stars and galaxies in the five regions of the sky being studied, leaving only the most ancient light. The Nasa photo here shows one of the regions, in the constellation of Ursa Major.

They then studied fluctuations in the intensity of infrared brightness in the faint and diffuse glow that remained. The fluctuations revealed a clustering of objects that produced the observed light pattern.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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