Mystery Signal from the Dawn of the Universe --"May Unveil a New Physics" (Today's Top Science News)
“The stakes are high because if the signal is real, this experiment is worth two Nobel prizes,” says astronomer Abraham Loeb of Harvard University. “One for being first to detect the 21 cm signal from the cosmic dawn and the second for finding an unexpected level of hydrogen absorption that may be indicative of new physics.”
According to cosmologists, the hydrogen gas that existed in the very early universe was in thermal equilibrium with the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which meant that the gas would not have been visible either through absorption of the microwave photons or through emission. But at the start of the cosmic dawn about 100 million years after the Big Bang, ultraviolet light from the first stars would have excited the hydrogen atoms and shifted the distribution of electrons within the lower and upper levels of the hyperfine transition. As such, the hydrogen would have started to absorb much more radiation at the transition wavelength (21 cm), which would be seen today as a dip at longer, re-shifted wavelengths in the CMB spectrum.
In February, researchers working on the Experiment to Detect the Global Epoch of Reionization Signature (EDGES) telescope reported in Nature that they had seen just such a dip at a wavelength of 380 cm in data from their small ground-based antenna system in Western Australia. The observation was exciting news, but nevertheless in line with standard cosmological theory. However, the dip was actually twice as deep as expected – immediately leading theorists to speculate that the hydrogen was in fact interacting with particles of dark matter.
The idea is that the dark matter would have been colder than the hydrogen atoms and so interactions between the two would have transferred energy from the gas to the dark matter – so cooling the gas and boosting absorption. The possibility of this mechanism being tied to the switching on of the first stars was proposed by Rennan Barkana of Tel Aviv University in Israel, but Barkana suggested that the interaction could involve a new fundamental force between dark and ordinary matter.
However, Loeb and Harvard colleague Julián Muñoz argued that there could be no such force as it would have led to stars cooling more quickly than is observed. Instead, they reckon that the interaction could be that of familiar electromagnetism – requiring that a small fraction of dark matter particles have little mass and carry about a millionth of the charge of the electron.
Image credit: Artist's impression. ICRAR/Peter Ryan