The rise of the first stars: Supersonic streaming, radiative feedback, and 21-cm cosmology

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Understanding the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies represents one of the most exciting frontiers in astronomy. Since the universe was filled with hydrogen atoms at early times, the most promising method for observing the epoch of the first stars is to use the prominent 21-cm spectral line of hydrogen. Current observational efforts are focused on the cosmic reionization era, but observations of the pre-reionization cosmic dawn are also beginning and promise exciting discoveries. While observationally unexplored, theoretical studies predict a rich variety of observational signatures from the astrophysics of the early galaxies that formed during cosmic dawn. As the first stars formed, their radiation (plus that from stellar remnants) produced feedback that radically affected both the intergalactic medium and the character of newly-forming stars. Lyman-α radiation from stars generated a strong 21-cm absorption signal, observation of which is currently the only feasible method of detecting the dominant population of galaxies at redshifts as early as z∼25. Another major player is cosmic heating; if due to soft X-rays, then it occurred fairly early (z∼15) and produced the strongest pre-reionization signal, while if it is due to hard X-rays, as now seems more likely, then it occurred later and may have dramatically affected the 21-cm sky even during reionization. In terms of analysis, much focus has gone to studying the angle-averaged power spectrum of 21-cm fluctuations, a rich dataset that can be used to reconstruct the astrophysical information of greatest interest. This does not, however, diminish the importance of finding additional probes that are complementary or amenable to a more model-independent analysis. Examples include the global (sky-averaged) 21-cm spectrum, and the line-of-sight anisotropy of the 21-cm power spectrum. Another striking feature may result from a recently recognized effect of a supersonic relative velocity between the dark matter and gas. This effect enhanced large-scale clustering and, if early 21-cm fluctuations were dominated by small galactic halos, it produced a prominent pattern on 100 Mpc scales. Work in this field, focused on understanding the whole era of reionization and cosmic dawn with analytical models and numerical simulations, is likely to grow in intensity and importance, as the theoretical predictions are finally expected to confront 21-cm observations in the coming years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-59
Number of pages59
JournalPhysics Reports
StatePublished - 22 Jul 2016


  • 21-cm cosmology
  • Cosmic reionization
  • Cosmology
  • First stars
  • Galaxy formation

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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