Telescope Eyeing Universe's First Stars Gets (Another) Big Boost

Monday, March 20, 2017
by Calla Cofield, Staff Writer

Throughout history, groups of people around the world have created stories about how the first stars arrived in the night sky. Some say the stars were born from their mother, the moon, or that they are the souls of animals that ventured up into the great, gaping darkness above.

It’s only in recent history that humans have gained the ability to find out the real story of the very first generations of stars in the universe. The HERA radio telescope is one of the instruments that will allow humans to read this chapter in cosmic history. HERA, which stands for Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array, will investigate a period in time when the very first generations of stars and galaxies formed, and totally altered the cosmic landscape.

A newly announced $5.8 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will allow the HERA team to increase the number of antennas in the array from 240 to 350, boosting the telescope’s collecting area by almost 50 percent, according to a statement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), home to scientists in the HERA collaboration. A $9.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2016 helped the HERA team increase the number of antennas from 19 to 240. [These Are the Biggest Telescopes on Earth]

The team will also make modifications to the telescope’s instrumentation, which will allow scientists to look even further back in time, to before there were enough stars to form galaxies, when the very first population of very massive objects began to blossom. Those early objects may have included a generation of gigantic stars, hundreds of times the mass of the sun, or, possibly, a population of black holes, according to Jacqueline Hewitt, a professor of physics at MIT, who is overseeing HERA’s new grant.

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