New data from the European Space Agency’s Planck Space Telescope has shown that the first stars formed 100 million years later than thought.
Data gathered by Planck suggests that star formations first began around 550 million years after the Big Bang, which occurred around 13.8 billion years ago and filled the universe with matter. From this moment until the birth of the first stars during the reionization epoch, the universe existed in a dark age during which there was no visible light.
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Previous scientific research had suggested that the earliest stars were born around 440 million years after the Big Bang. The Planck telescope was launched in 2009 with the stated aim of studying the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is in fact faint echoes of radiation produced by the Big Bang. The study of these waves will allow scientists to reach a greater understanding of the formation of our Universe.
Planck was decommissioned in 2013 when its stocks of liquid helium coolant ran out. During its operational period Planck gathered reams of data on the CMB, which can be used to determine the age of the universe, its shape, and carry out an analysis of its contents, according to Jonathan Amos of the BBC.
Questioning existing scientific models
The data collected by Planck means that the models previously used to explain the super-rapid expansion of the universe no longer make very much sense, which means that a more unusual explanation will have to be found.
“We’re now being pushed into a parameter space we didn’t expect to be in,” said Dr Andrew Jaffe from Imperial College, UK, who collaborated on the research. “That’s OK. We like interesting physics; that’s why we’re physicists, so there’s no problem with that. It’s just we had this naïve expectation that the simplest answer would be right, and sometimes it just isn’t.”
Although most of the data was consistent with the existing model, the polarization of the CMB did not provide any evidence that super-rapid expansion occurred in the moments following the Big Bang. Other experiments are continuing to look for the signal in order to prove the theory right.