Illustration of a tidal disruption event

New method to hunt for the universe’s first stars

23 May 2024

A team of astrophysicists at the University of Hong Kong has developed a novel method to indirectly detect Population III (Pop III) stars, the elusive first stars formed in the universe shortly after the Big Bang. These stars, composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, hold crucial clues to understanding the early universe and the formation of heavier elements.

The research team, led by Dr Jane Lixin Dai, proposes that the immense gravitational pull of massive black holes can tear apart Pop III stars in a phenomenon known as a tidal disruption event. Advanced telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope and the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope can detect the unique signatures of luminous flares generated by this violent process.

By analysing the distinct characteristics of these flares, scientists can infer the existence and properties of Pop III stars, even though they are too faint to be observed directly. The researchers are optimistic that this innovative approach will lead to the identification of numerous tidal disruption events each year, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries about the universe’s earliest stars and its evolution.

The research was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters with Dr Rudrani Kar Chowdhury as the first author.