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Scientists say they’ve detected birth of first stars

First stars
This artist’s rendering shows the universe’s first, massive, blue stars embedded in gaseous filaments, with the cosmic microwave background just visible at the edges. (NSF Illustration / N.R. Fuller)

Astronomers have detected radio waves from a time within 180 million years of the Big Bang, and they say they see signs of what may be the first stars to coalesce in the infant universe.

The detection was made using an array of radio antennas that was set up in Australia for a project known as the Experiment to Detect the Global Epoch of Reionization Signature, or EDGES. Astronomers from Arizona, Massachusetts and Colorado reported their discovery in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

“Finding this minuscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe,” lead investigator Judd Bowman of Arizona State University said in a news release. “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.”

Although the signal was difficult to detect, it was twice as dramatic as computer models predicted for the startup of the first stars. If the findings hold up, the models would have to be adjusted to account for the effect, and one possible explanation could involve interactions with dark matter.

“If that idea is confirmed, then we’ve learned something new and fundamental about the mysterious dark matter that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe,” Bowman said. “This would provide the first glimpse of physics beyond the standard model.”

Some astronomers counseled caution.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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