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HERA Radio Telescope Project to View First Galaxies in the Universe Gets Big Funding

Sep 21, 2016 04:23 AM EDT

A telescope project designed to help scientists understand the first stars and galaxies in the universe has just received a huge funding support.

The radio telescope project called Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) has just received about $9.5 million of new funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). According to a press release by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the investment will expand the telescope's capabilities, increasing the number of radio antennas from only 19 to about 240 by the year 2018.

"Astronomers want to know what happened to the universe after it emerged from its so-called 'dark ages'," Rich Barvainis, National Science Foundation program director, said in a statement.

"HERA will help us answer that question, not by studying the primordial stars and galaxies themselves, but rather by studying how these objects changed the nature of intergalactic space."

HERA or Cosmic Dawn is a type of Square Kilometer Array (SKA) precursor telescope that currently has 19 14-meter radio dishes at the SKA South Africa Losberg site near Carnarvon, a few kilometers away from the MeerKAT radio telescope. The telescope aims to detect and observe hydrogen - the most abundant element in the early universe - and create a 3D map of the universe.

Thousands of years after the Big Bang, the universe was filled with a fog of neutral hydrogen atoms, which are atoms with no electric charge. This is a period known as the cosmic "dark ages." As the universe expanded, larger hydrogen clouds gathered due to their mutual gravitational attraction. Some of these clouds became hot and dense that the hydrogen atoms fused and formed the first stars.

Over time, the radiation from these stars began clearing away the hydrogen fog, freeing the electrons from the neutral hydrogen atoms, eventually resulting in the brightly lit transparent universe we see today. This "freeing" process is known as cosmic reionization and lasted roughly a billion years.

"HERA will provide a glimpse into this important but as yet unexplored period of the early universe," Rich Bradley, HERA team member and an NRAO senior scientist, said in the same statement. "The ultraviolet light and X-ray emissions from these primitive objects altered the fundamental nature of the universe surrounding them, and HERA is designed to detect these changes."

The project's international scientific collaboration consists of the University of California, Berkeley, South Africa Square Kilometer Array, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other known institutions.

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