Astronomers have discovered the "missing link" in the evolution of the universe following the Big Bang, it has been claimed.
For years scientists have known nothing about the "dark ages" of space – a period between the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago and the creation of the first stars.
But Cambridge University researchers have now captured light emitted from a massive black hole to peer into this unknown portion of the history of the universe.
They discovered remnants of the first stars and evidence of the aftermath of an exploding star, which was 25 times larger than the sun.
Prof Max Pettini, of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, believes the discovery of these gases could help reveal the origins of the universe.
He said: "We have effectively been able to peer into the Dark Ages using the light emitted from a quasar.
"The light provides a backdrop against which any gas cloud in its path can be measured.
"We discovered tiny amounts of elements present in the cloud in proportions that are very different from their relative proportions in normal stars today.
"Most significantly, the ratio of carbon to iron is 35 times greater than measured in the sun.
"The composition enables us to infer that the gas was released by a star 25 times more massive than the sun and originally consisting of only hydrogen and helium.
"In effect, this is a fossil record that provides us with a missing link back to the early universe."
Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy teamed up with researchers at California Institute of Technology to carry out the groundbreaking research.
They used light emitted from a massive black hole, called a quasar, to 'light up' gases released by the young stars.
These early stars are believed to hold the key to how the universe evolved from being filled with hydrogen and helium to one rich in heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon and iron.
Lasting half a billion years after the Big Bang, this period is inaccessible to telescopes because the clouds of gas that filled the universe then were not transparent.
But astronomers in California and Cambridge successfully located a rare cloud released from a star using the world's largest telescopes in Hawaii and Chile.
The results provide experimental observations of a time that has so far been possible to model only with computer simulations.