Project Overview

Probing the nature of Dark Matter with the first stars and galaxies in the Universe

Faculty Sponsor

Cosmin Ilie (


Physics and Astronomy


Data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has already begun to revolutionize our view of the cosmic dawn era, when the first stars and galaxies are forming. Simply put it keeps finding too many compact objects that are too bright to have formed in the first 500 Myrs after the Big Bang. Moreover JWST has reinforced another connundrum in Astonomy: the origin of the Supermassive Black Holes powering the most distant observed Quasars. Namelly, there is not enough time for a Black Hole that has been seeded by a normal star (even one as massive as one thousand suns!) to have grown to the tens of billions of suns mass of the Black Holes powering the most distant quasars observed, whose light is emitted when the universe was younger than 800 Myrs old. Combined, those two problems indicate that the current understanding of the formation of the first stars and galaxies is, at best, incomplete. Students involved in this project will have a chance to validate (using JWST data) a theoretical solution to both of those problems: Supermassive Dark Stars. As shown by the Ilie and collaborators, the fist stars in the Universe can grow to become supermassive, as long as they are powered by Dark Matter. Those objects (Supermassive Dark Stars) can shine as bright as a galaxy and once they run out of Dark Matter fuel they will collapse to a Supermassive Black Hole. Thus they offer natural explanations for both puzzles described above. Depending on interests and qualifications students can be involved in the data analysis part of this project, where JWST data is used to find Dark Star Candidates. For example, Jillian Paulin ('23) was key to the identification of the first three such objects in a paper we published in PNAS. Other students could be involved in numerical modelling of the spectra of Supermassive Dark Stars by using codes such as TLUSTY and/or CLOUDY. 


Student Qualifications

Proficiency with Python is desired.
While not required, a strong backround in astrophysics is desired. Alternatively, students shuold have the will to quickly learn given appropriate resources and mentoring. 

Number of Student Researchers

3 students

Project Length

10 weeks

Applications open on 10/03/2023 and close on 02/28/2024

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (