SYDNEY -- Astronomers have used a simple but high-tech antenna in the remote Western Australian outback to detect a radio signal from the earliest stars, according to a study published on Thursday.
The groundbreaking discovery about the dawn of the universe was observed when a team of American scientists detected tiny radio wave signals dating back to the birth of the first stars, according to the study in journal Nature.
"Finding this minuscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe," lead author Judd Bowman of Arizona State University said.
"It is unlikely that we'll be able to see any earlier into the history of stars in our lifetimes," Bowman said.
The scientists said the signals indicated that the first stars formed 180 million years after the Big Bang, the time when the universe began 13.8 billion years ago.
Following the Big Bang, the universe existed as a cold and dark expanse of hydrogen gas for millions of years.
Then, in the darkness, gravity pulled denser regions of gas together until the first stars were formed and emitted ultraviolet light, which was bright, blue and brief but too faint for current telescopes, and was absorbed by hydrogen gas.
The newfound signal, detected in the form of a dip in the intensity of radio waves because of the absorption by the hydrogen, was picked up at a low radio frequency by the antenna, and is the closest astronomers have come to seeing the "cosmic dawn."
"We see this dip most strongly at about 78 megahertz, and that frequency corresponds to roughly 180 million years after the Big Bang," Alan Rogers, the study's co-author from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.
The discovery made for the first time was done by using a small radio telescope at a radio-astronomy observatory in Murchison -- a pristine, radio-quiet area in Western Australia, 370 miles northeast of Perth -- which was tuned to detect the earliest evidence of hydrogen.
While the frequency of the signal was predicted, scientists were surprised by the strength of the signal, and the discovery has been hailed as important as the detection of gravitational waves.
It could also completely revolutionize our understanding about dark matter, the invisible structure that makes up the bulk of our universe today, according to astronomers.
Antony Schinckel, a scientist with the Australian research organization CSIRO, who oversaw the development of Murchison Observatory, lauded the discovery of the signal as "an absolute triumph."
"A triumph made possible by the extreme attention to detail by Judd's team, combined with the exceptional radio quietness of the CSIRO site," Schinckel said in a statement.
"This is one of the most technically challenging radio astronomy experiments ever attempted. The lead authors include two of the best radio astronomy experimentalists in the world and they have gone to great lengths to design and calibrate their equipment in order to have convincing evidence for a real signal," Schinckel said.
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