Using a similar process, Kashlinsky and his colleagues systematically ruled out the radiation contributed by stars and galaxies between Earth and the extremely distant population III stars.
The remaining radiation was larger than expected and fluctuated unevenly across the sky. Kashlinsky and colleagues believe that energy reflects the original stars.
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But the cutting-edge observations are sure to raise new questions.
Richard Ellis, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, cautioned that the NASA team "had to remove all the foreground material to see the signal, so the natural suspicion is that they didn't do it correctly."
"I'm worried about having to remove all the light from all of the galaxies between us and these very first stars," he added. "They have a good model and they did a convincing job. But we don't know the history of galaxy formation with high precision."
The new study and a related commentary by Ellis appear in tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature.
Birth of Starlight
The theoretical implications of detecting the first starlight could be far ranging.
"Soon after the big bang the universe was a dark place. Nothing was shining," Ellis said. "Astronomers are trying to determine what the physical conditions were when stars switched on for the first time."
There are different theories to explain the birth of starlight. A multitude of stars might have begun twinkling en masse over a relatively short period. Alternatively, stars might have switched on much more gradually.
The new findings may add some weight to the first theory.
"If [this research] is correct, it would suggest that it was a very brief period in history when the stars switched on," Ellis said. "If that's true, understanding what to look for and what period in time it happened is something that everybody would like to know."
NASA's Kashlinsky noted, "We might learn from such data, in the future, how bright the stars were, how many there were, and how matter was distributed."
The findings seem likely to spark further attempts to glimpse the first stars and grasp their importance.
"They've claimed to see something, and everybody will get excited. Some will believe and others won't. But it's a significant step forward in the subject," Ellis said. "It's a very important scientific question."
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