Science Daily: A new COMAP radio survey will examine the ‘tip’ of the iceberg of galaxies in order to uncover a hidden age of star formation


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The formation of the first stars took place around 400 million years after our universe was created. The so-called dark ages of the universe ended and a new, light-filled era began. As the universe grew, more galaxies emerged to serve as factories for creating new stars. This process reached its peak around 4 billion years after Big Bang.

This bygone era can, fortunately for astronomers. It takes time for distant light to reach us. Our telescopes can pick-up light emitted from galaxies billions of years ago by stars and galaxies (our universe is 13.8 million years old). However, the details of this chapter are not clear as most of the stars formed are obscured by dust.

COMAP (Co Mapping Array Project), a Caltech new project, will provide a fresh glimpse into the epoch that galaxy assembly occurred. It will also help to answer questions about how the universe experienced soaring star production.

“Most instruments could see the tip a iceberg when they look at galaxies during this period,” says Kieran Clary, principal investigator for the project and associate director of Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. (OVRO). COMAP will reveal what is beneath, hidden from our view.

The current phase of the project employs a 10.4-meter Leighton radio telescope at OVRO to study star-forming galaxies in space and time. The radio observations trace the origin of stars using cold hydrogen gas. This gas is hard to find so COMAP measures bright radio waves from carbon monoxide, which is always present with the hydrogen. COMAP’s radio camera detects these radio signals at a level that is unparalleled.

Seven papers published the initial science results of this project. The Astrophysical Journal. COMAP has established upper limits on the amount of cold gas that must be present in galaxies within the time period being studied. These upper limits were based on observations from COMAP’s first year of a five-year plan. The project has yet not detected the CO signal directly, but these early results indicate that it is well on its way to doing so. It will eventually paint the most complete picture yet about the history of star-formation in the universe.

Cleary states, “Looking forward to the project’s future, we intend to use this technique in order to successively look further back in time.” “We will continue to push back in time, starting 4 billion years after Big Bang. We’ll reach the epoch when the first stars and galaxies are formed, just a few billion years earlier.”

Anthony Readhead is the co-principal investigator of COMAP and the Robinson Professor in Astronomy. He says that COMAP will not only witness the first epochs of stars and galaxies. But also their epic decline. He says, “We will see star formation rising like an ocean tide.”

COMAP uses blurry radio images to capture clusters of galaxies in cosmic time, as opposed to sharp images of individual galaxies. This blurriness makes it possible for astronomers capture radio light from larger pools of galaxies.

Cleary says, “In this manner, we can find average properties of typical and faint galaxies without having to know exactly where any particular galaxy is located.” Cleary says that this is similar to determining the temperature of large volumes of water with a thermometer, rather than analysing the motions of individual water molecules.

The Keck Institute for Space Studies funded the project for critical early technology development. National Science Foundation (NSF) provided funding for the early phases of the project, including the building of “Pathfinder” and the survey. The project is a collaboration between Caltech; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managed by Caltech for NASA; New York University; Princeton University; Stanford University; Université de Genève; University of Oslo; The University of Manchester; University of Maryland; University of Miami; and the University of Toronto (including the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics and the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics).


MaterialsProvided by California Institute of Technology. Original by Whitney Clavin Notice: Style and length may be changed.


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