New maps of ‘polarised’ light in the young Universe have revealed that the first stars formed 100 million years later than earlier estimates. The new images of cosmic background radiation, based on data released today from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, have shown that the process of reionisation, which ended the ‘Dark Ages’ as the earliest stars formed, started 550 million years after the Big Bang.
The history of our Universe is a 13.8 billion-year tale that scientists endeavour to read by studying the planets, asteroids, comets and other objects in our Solar System, and gathering light emitted by distant stars, galaxies and the matter spread between them.
A major source of information used to piece together this story is the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, the fossil light resulting from a time when the Universe was hot and dense, only 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
Thanks to the expansion of the Universe, we see this light today covering the whole sky at microwave wavelengths.
Between 2009 and 2013, the Planck satellite surveyed the sky to study this ancient light in unprecedented detail. Tiny differences in the background’s temperature trace regions of slightly different density in the early cosmos, representing the seeds of all future structure, the stars and galaxies of today.
Scientists from the Planck collaboration have published the results from the analysis of these data in a large number of scientific papers over the past two years, confirming the standard cosmological picture of our Universe with ever greater accuracy.
The imaging is based on data from the Planck satellite, and was developed by the Planck collaboration, which includes the Cambridge Planck Analysis Centre at the University's Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford at the London Planck Analysis Centre.
“The CMB carries additional clues about our cosmic history that are encoded in its ‘polarisation’,” explains Jan Tauber, ESA’s Planck project scientist. “Planck has measured this signal for the first time at high resolution over the entire sky, producing the unique maps released today.”
Light is polarised when it vibrates in a preferred direction, something that may arise as a result of photons – the particles of light – bouncing off other particles. This is exactly what happened when the CMB originated in the early Universe.
Initially, photons were trapped in a hot, dense soup of particles that, by the time the Universe was a few seconds old, consisted mainly of electrons, protons and neutrinos. Owing to the high density, electrons and photons collided with one another so frequently that light could not travel any significant distant before bumping into another electron, making the early Universe extremely ‘foggy’.
Slowly but surely, as the cosmos expanded and cooled, photons and the other particles grew farther apart, and collisions became less frequent. This had two consequences: electrons and protons could finally combine and form neutral atoms without them being torn apart again by an incoming photon, and photons had enough room to travel, being no longer trapped in the cosmic fog.
The new Planck data fixes the date of the end of these ‘Dark Ages’ to roughly 550 million years after the Big Bang, more than 100 million years later than previously determined by earlier polarisation observations from the NASA WMAP satellite (Planck’s predecessor), and has helped resolve a problem for observers of the early Universe.
The Dark Ages lasted until the formation of the first stars and galaxies, specifically the formation of very large stars with extremely hot surfaces, which resulted in the energetic UV-radiation that began the process of reionisation of the neutral hydrogen throughout the Universe.
Very deep images of the sky from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have provided a census of the earliest known galaxies, which started forming perhaps 300–400 million years after the Big Bang.
The problem is that with a date for the end of the Dark Ages set at 450 million years after the Big Bang, astronomers can estimate that UV-radiation from such a source would have proved insufficient. “In that case, we would have needed additional, more exotic sources of energy to explain the history of reionisation,” said Professor George Efstathiou, Director of the Kavli Institute of Cosmology.
The additional margin of 100 million years provided by Planck removes this need as stars and galaxies would have had the time to supply the energetic radiation required to bring the Dark Ages to a close and begin the Epoch of reionisation that would last for a further 400 million years.
Although the joint investigation between Planck and BICEP2, searching for the imprinted signature on the polarisation of the CMB of gravitational waves triggered by inflation, found no direct detection of this signal, it crucially placed strong upper-limits on the amount of primordial gravitational waves.
Searching for this signal remains a major focus of ongoing and planned CMB experiments. “The results of the joint analysis demonstrate the power of combining CMB B-mode polarisation observations with measurements at higher frequency from Planck to clean Galactic dust,” said Dr Anthony Challinor of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology.
Inset image: Polarised emission from Milky Way dust Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
New maps from the Planck satellite uncover the ‘polarised’ light from the early Universe across the entire sky, revealing that the first stars formed much later than previously thought.
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