By André Offringa
13.8 billion years ago, our Universe was created in an event called the Big Bang. "Only" 0.5 billion years later, the Universe entered a pivotal stage. At that time, the Universe was filled with cold hydrogen, and the first objects, such as early stars and galaxies, had just formed. These objects started to heat the hydrogen, causing "bubbles" of heated hydrogen to form around the radiating sources. This process is called the Epoch of Reionization.
Published by the editorial team, 8 June 2020
A group of researchers is using LOFAR to improve our understanding of this early phase of our Universe. The bubbles of heated hydrogen leave a particular imprint behind in the signals that LOFAR receives, and can therefore be detected by LOFAR. However, this requires advanced modelling techniques and combining many observations to detect the weak imprint behind all the nearby bright objects.
In this highlight, researchers have shown that they have made a significant step forward. By analyzing 141 hours of observing, they have have been able to rule out, for the first time, that the imprint exceeds a certain brightness. They will continue using LOFAR to try and find direct proof of this mysterious era in the evolution of our Universe.
The article this highlight is based on: Improved upper limits on the 21-cm signal power spectrum of neutral hydrogen at z≈9.1 from LOFAR F. G. Mertens, M. Mevius, L.V.E Koopmans, A. R. Offringa and others.
On 12 June 2020, LOFAR celebrates its tenth anniversary. The radio telescope is the world’s largest low frequency instrument and is one of the pathfinders of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which is currently being developed. Throughout its ten years of operation, LOFAR has made some amazing discoveries. It has been a key part of groundbreaking research, both in astronomy and engineering. Here we feature some – but definitely not all – of these past highlights, with surely more to come in the future.