Hubble suggests first stars opened in a blaze of glory
Posted: January 9, 2002

The deepest views of the cosmos from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope yield clues that the very first stars may have burst into the universe as brilliantly and spectacularly as a fireworks finale. In this case though the finale came first, long before Earth, the Sun and the Milky Way Galaxy formed.

If this interpretation is correct, it offers a tantalizing possibility that astronomers may behold this stellar blaze of glory when they use NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope and other future space telescopes to probe even farther into the very early universe.

This is an artist's impression of how the very early universe (less than 1 billion years old) might have looked when it went through a voracious onset of star formation, converting primordial hydrogen into myriad stars at an unprecedented rate. Back then the sky would have looked markedly different from the sea of quiescent galaxies around us today. The sky is ablaze with primeval starburst galaxies; giant elliptical and spiral galaxies have yet to form. Within the starburst galaxies, bright knots of hot blue stars come and go like bursting fireworks shells. Regions of new starbirth glow intensely red under a torrent of ultraviolet radiation. The most massive stars self-detonate as supernovas, which explode across the sky like a string of firecrackers. A foreground starburst galaxy at lower right is sculpted with hot bubbles from supernova explosions and torrential stellar winds. Unlike today there is very little dust in these galaxies, because the heavier elements have not yet been cooked up through nucleosynthesis in stars. Recent analysis of Hubble Space Telescope deep sky images supports the theory that the first stars in the universe appeared in an abrupt eruption of star formation, rather than at a gradual pace. Painting Credit: Adolf Schaller for STScI
Studies of Hubble's deepest views of the heavens by Kenneth M. Lanzetta of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and colleagues lead to the preliminary conclusion that the universe made a significant portion of its stars in a torrential firestorm of star birth, which abruptly lit up the pitch-dark heavens just a few hundred million years after the big bang. Though stars continue to be born today in galaxies, the star birthrate could be a trickle compared to the predicted gusher of stars in those opulent early years.

This new idea of a continually escalating rate of star birth the farther Hubble looks back in time offers a dramatic revision of previous Hubble Deep Field studies that proposed that the star birthrate in the early universe ramped up to a "baby boom" about halfway back to the beginning of the universe.

"If this can be verified it will dramatically change our understanding of the universe," said Dr. Anne Kinney, director of the Astronomy and Physics division at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "Because stars are the building blocks of galaxies and the birthplace of solar systems, proving that countless numbers of stars began forming so early after the birth of the universe could cause us to rethink a lot of our theories."

Lanzetta bases his conclusion on a new analysis of galaxies in the Hubble deep fields taken near the north and south celestial poles (in 1995 and 1998 respectively). He reports in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal that the farthest objects in the deep fields are only the "tip of the iceberg" of an effervescent period of star birth that is unlike anything the universe will ever see again. Lanzetta concludes that 90 percent of the light from the early universe is missing in the Hubble deep fields. "The previous census of the deep fields missed most of the ultraviolet light in the universe; most of it is invisible," he says.

Based on an analysis of galaxy colors, Lanzetta concludes that the farthest objects in the deep fields must be extremely intense, unexpectedly bright knots of blue-white, hot newborn stars embedded in primordial galaxies that are too faint to be seen even by Hubble's far vision. It's like seeing only the lights on a distant Christmas tree and inferring the presence of the whole tree.

Illustration of star formation rate since the Big Bang. Credit: A. Feild (STScI)
Likewise, Lanzetta deduced the total population of stars in the early universe based on observing only the brightest stars with the Hubble telescope. Because such far extrapolations are built on certain assumptions, this conclusion will require further analysis and observation.

Lanzetta next plans to use Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys, to be installed in early 2002, to look even deeper into the universe to try to directly verify some portion of the missing light. He will also look for very distant supernovae as an alternate measure of star formation. "Because they are point sources of light, supernovae are not subject to the same cosmological brightness-dimming effects like galaxies (which are extended sources of light)," says Lanzetta.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. operates the Space Telescope Science Institute for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international co-operation between NASA and the European Space Agency.