NASA researchers have detected the faint glow of what they believe to be the first stars and galaxies to form in the aftermath of the Big Bang — and it's positively stunning. If the team's findings are correct, they could offer valuable insight into the nature of the Universe's very first objects.
The observations were made by a team of scientists led by Alexander Kashlinsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Since 2005, researchers like Kashlinsky have been using the Agency's Spitzer Telescope to get a more detailed look at what astronomers call the cosmic infrared background (CIB), a mystifying pattern of light thought to emanate from some of the farthest reaches of the Universe.
But Spitzer can only peer so far, and there are countless other cosmic entities obstructing its view of the CIB. To circumvent issues like these, Kashlinksy and his team narrowed their search to specific sections of sky, and used careful analysis to remove intervening stars and galaxies to produce the most detailed view of the CIB yet (click here, or the image below, for a hi-res version). According to NASA:
The top panel shows Spitzer's initial infrared view of [a patch of sky in the constellation Boötes named the "Extended Groth Strip"], including foreground stars and a confusion of fainter galaxies.
In the lower panel, all of the resolved stars and galaxies have been masked out of the image (grey patches), and the remaining background glow has been smoothed and enhanced. This processing reveals structure too faint to be seen in the original image.
But that structure is still pretty blurry. Kashlinksy says that visualizing the CIB is a bit like trying to spot Fourth of July fireworks in New York City from a rooftop in Los Angeles. Even if you can subtract all the light between the cities (not to mention the city lights of NYC itself), what you're left with isn't so much a pristine fireworks display as it is a vague outline of where, and how intensely, those fireworks might have been shining. But that's still valuable information.
"[We're gathering] clues from the light of the universe's first fireworks," said Kashlinsky in a statement. "This is teaching us that the sources, or the 'sparks,' are intensely burning their nuclear fuel." He continues:
"These objects would have been tremendously bright... We can't yet directly rule out mysterious sources for this light that could be coming from our nearby universe, but it is now becoming increasingly likely that we are catching a glimpse of an ancient epoch."
Studies like this one are a perfect example of how the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured here, currently scheduled to launch around 2018) stands to advance the fields of astronomy and astrophysics in transformative ways. The JWST will allow us to take the mysterious, glowing patches of the Extended Groth Strip collected by Spitzer and resolve them into images of actual galaxy- and star-formation from the Universe's infancy.
"This is one of the reasons we are building the James Webb Space Telescope," said Glenn Wahlgren, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Spitzer is giving us tantalizing clues, but James Webb will tell us what really lies at the era where stars first ignited."
The researchers' findings are to be published in The Astrophysical Journal. [NASA]