Keck Observatory Locates Two Clouds Of Pristine Gas From The Beginning of Time

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016


Is there any place in space which hasn’t been affected by time? The answer is yes. Thanks to some very awesome research, the W. M. Keck Observatory and a team of scientists have recently located two clumps of primordial gas which may very well have had its origin within minutes of the Big Bang.

How do we know these gas clouds are so special? In this case, they are simply too disseminated to enable stellar birth and contain no heavy metals which would support it. These diaphanous regions are pure hydrogen and helium… along with a heavier isotope, deuterium. This combination could mean the two billion year old regions are pure – never involved in the star-forming process. An exciting discovery? You bet. The clouds could have possibly survived in an unchanged state – giving us a look at what may have occurred at the dawn of time.

“Despite decades of effort to find anything metal-free in the universe, Nature has previously set a limit to enrichment at no less than one-thousandth that found in the Sun,” said astronomer J. Xavier Prochaska of the University of California Observatories-Lick Observatory, U.C. Santa Cruz. “These clouds are at least 10 times lower than that limit and are the most pristine gas discovered in our universe.”

Prochaska is part of the Keck team and has coauthored a paper reporting on the discovery with Michele Fumagalli of the U.C. Santa Cruz and John O’Meara of Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. “We’ve searched carefully for oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and silicon – the things that are found on Earth and the Sun in abundance,” Fumagalli said. “We don’t find a trace of anything other than hydrogen and deuterium.”

According to the Keck Observatory news release exactly how they can detect dark, cold, diffuse gas about 12 billion light-years away is a story in itself.

“In this case we actually have to do a bit of a trick,” Prochaska explained. “We study the gas in silhouette.” A more distant quasar provides the light for this. The quasar light shines though the gas and the elements in the gas absorb very specific wavelengths of light, which can only be found by splitting the light into very detailed spectra to reveal the dark lines of missing light.

In other words, said Fumagalli, “All of the analysis is on the light we didn’t get.” The clouds absorb only a small fraction of the quasar light that makes it to Earth. “But the signatures of hydrogen absorption are obvious, so there’s no doubt there’s a lot of gas there.”

While some folks might not get excited over the location of immaculate gases, astronomers think differently. This revelation supports their theories of what may have occurred within moments after the Big Bang and what formed at the time of nucleosynthesis. It’s a look back at when hydrogen, helium, lithium and boron originated.

The two pristine gas clouds found by astronomers could sit in one of the filamentary regions visible around galaxies in this image, which are from computer simulations. Credit: Simulation by Ceverino, Dekel & Primack

“That theory has been very well tested at Keck as regards to hydrogen and its isotope deuterium,” said O’Meara. “One of the conundrums of that previous work, however, is that the gas also showed at least trace amounts of oxygen and carbon. The clouds that we have discovered are the first to match the full predictions of BBN.”

What’s more, Keck’s two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes have shown us what the early universe may have been like. This is the very first time that science has been able to peer into regions where no metals have influenced the environment and no stars have formed.

“What excites me about this discovery is that there is an almost a range of 1,000,000 in the metallicity in gases at that time in the universe,” said Fumagalli. In other words, there were places like our Solar system – where metals are very abundant – and there were also places very unlike today, where metals were still virtually non-existent and the gases were unchanged since almost the beginning of time.”

Original Story Source: Keck Observatory News Release. For Further Reading: Detection of Pristine Gas Two Billion Years After the Big Bang.

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13 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Dennis Mabrey says:

    I am going to guess that since we are seeing this gas as it was 12 billion years ago that it is currently no longer pristine without heavier elements/metals.

    I wonder what telescopes would see if they could see how things really are today instead of how they were millions and even billions of years ago.

    • Anonymous says:

      12 billion light years away is about the same in time. Frame dragging becomes a significant factor around this distance and z ~ 1. By this time there are galaxies in formation, and as far back as z = 8, or 500 million years after the big bang there are PopIII stars and protogalactic formation. So this gas is unique even for this time in the universe.

      On the Hubble frame these distant object exist, but to observe them would require an infinite speed for the speed of light.


  3. Ken Lord says:

    So how much lithium is in this cloud? I think that’s the first thing I’d look at, to see if our ideas are right about how much nuclear reactions took place right after the big bang before density dropped too much.

  4. Gareth Griffiths says:

    For me , the most important thing to keep in mind is – there may not have been a big bang.
    Dogma. Pure dogma, saturated through the veins of the scientific community.

    The above is a blanket of gas around Faults. I try to drum it home. Faults surrounded by gas caused by energy exchange.

    The cosmic web is a network of faults spread throughout our universe.

    Gareth Griffiths came to this conclusion first!!!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    There have been many claims of “pristine gas” reported in the literature previously, so pardon me if I await confirmation of these observations. If true, this is a remarkable find.

    • Anonymous says:

      This does not appear to indicate whether this pristine material is accompanied by dark matter. The rendered images or numerical results seem to suggest that it is. Pristine gas in the absence of dark matter is in the intergalactic medium. Yet if a gas of pure H and He is associated with DM, but there has been no collapse of this material into stars or galaxies, this would indicate something about the proportions of luminous to dark matter.

      The distant light used to measure absorption lines of H and He could also be used to determine the mass of this by Einstein lensing. That should accompany these results I should think.


  6. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

    Sorry I’m late, dudes, but here be the link to the free paper: Detection of Pristine Gas Two Billion Years after the Big Bang.

  7. Lord Haw-Haw. says:

    Diaphanous regions = Characterized by such finesse of texture as to permit seeing through…. that reminds some of us of our paychecks!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Ken Lord, how much lithium is in a cloud that is pure Hydrogen, an isotope and Helium? Well about the same amount of Ivory Snow dish washing detergent, I’d guess. But that’s fairly unscientific. It might be closer to the amount of Gefiltephish.

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