Early Universe's First Stars Spied in Distant Galaxies

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
July 10, 2007

More than 13 billion years ago, some of the first stars in our universe flickered into life.

Now, for the first time, astronomers think they may have spotted light from these early stars in the most distant known galaxies, which lie more than 13 billion light-years away.

(Related: "Earliest Galaxies in the Universe Spied by Astronomers" [September 15, 2006].)

The finding will help scientists understand what the universe was like in its infancy and what made the first stars "switch on."

"It's really exciting to think that these very early stars might finally have been detected for the first time," said Marek Kukula, an astronomer at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland who wasn't involved in the new discovery.

Tomorrow Richard Ellis of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) will present images of the distant galaxies at a cosmology conference at the Geological Society in London.

The conference, titled "From IRAS to Herschel/Planck: Cosmology with Infrared and Submillimetre Surveys," is being held from July 9 to 11.

Trick of the Light

Ellis and colleagues discovered the far-off galaxies using one of the most powerful telescopes in the world: the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The team spent three years searching the sky using a technique called gravitational lensing.

This method involves looking for light from distant bodies that has been bent as it passes through the "lens" created by the gravitational fields of nearby massive objects.

"The amount of bending depends on the distance of the source and the power of the lens," Ellis said.

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