NASA believes it's spotted the dappled light of the first objects in the universe with the best precision yet.
Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists have observed a 'lumpy' infrared glow that could be coming from wildly massive stars or voracious black holes.
The observations help confirm that te very early universe held a large number of furiously burning objects.
"These objects would have been tremendously bright," says Alexander Kashlinsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
"We can't yet directly rule out mysterious sources for this light that could be coming from our nearby universe, but it is now becoming increasingly likely that we are catching a glimpse of an ancient epoch. Spitzer is laying down a roadmap for NASA's upcoming James Webb Telescope, which will tell us exactly what and where these first objects were."
Spitzer first caught hints of this remote pattern of light, known as the cosmic infrared background, in 2005, and again with more precision in 2007. Now, it's performing more in-depth studies on specific patches of the sky.
Kashlinsky and his colleagues used Spitzer to look at two patches of sky for more than 400 hours each, and then carefully subtracted all of the known stars and galaxies in the images.
What remained were faint patterns of light with several telltale characteristics of the cosmic infrared background. The lumps in the pattern observed are consistent with the way the very distant objects are thought to be clustered together.
The universe formed about 13.7 billion years ago, withthe first stars, galaxies and black holes starting to take shape 500 million years later.
Their first light would have originated at visible or even ultraviolet wavelengths and then, because of the expansion of the universe, stretched out to the longer, infrared wavelengths observed by Spitzer.
The new study measures this cosmic infrared background out to scales equivalent to two full moons - significantly larger than before. They plan to explore more patches of sky in the future.
"This is one of the reason's we are building the James Webb Space Telescope," says Glenn Wahlgren, Spitzer program scientist. "Spitzer is giving us tantalizing clues, but James Webb will tell us what really lies at the era where stars first ignited."