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The First Stars May Have Been 100 Million Times Brighter Than the Sun

When the James Webb Space Telescope looks back in time, is this what it will see?
Protostars forming in the centre of disks of gas. Credit: Shantanu Basu, University of Western Ontario.

One of cosmology's greatest ongoing quests is capturing light from the universe's very first stars, which has never been observed before.

Though scientists haven't yet directly glimpsed this "let there be light" moment in cosmological history, they can certainly speculate about how it might have gone down. And according to Canadian astronomers Alexander DeSouza and Shantanu Basu, the universe's first generation of light-emitting bodies was beyond blinding, featuring clusters of protostars 100 million times brighter than the Sun.

DeSouza and Basu expand on the mechanics of these inaugural clusters in a new study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The pair modelled the conditions of early universe a few hundred years after the Big Bang, and focused in particular on the dynamics of condensing disks of hydrogen and helium.

They found that this gravitational collapse would result in the formation of uneven clumps of material, with denser regions sinking inwards to the center of the disk. This interaction between the heavier cosmic chunklets and the rest of the whirling protostar created intense bursts of luminosity.

As these larval stars formed clusters, the cumulative effect of the bursts was amplified, creating a stellar fireworks show beyond reckoning. This level of brightness also would have been short-lived, lasting only as long as the disks settled into more stable stars. If this theory holds up, these magnificent confluences would be luminous enough to be captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) after it launches in 2018.

"Seeing the very first stars is a key science goal for JWST and part of astronomers' quest to track the history of the cosmos," Dr. Basu said in a statement. "If we're right, then in just a few years' time, we could see these enigmatic and dazzlingly bright objects as they came into being, and lit up the universe around them."