When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.
That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.
I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t understand dark matter. We do know for sure that something funny is going on at large scales in the universe (“large” here meaning at least as big as galaxies). In short, the numbers just aren’t adding up. For example, when we look at a galaxy and count up all the hot glowing bits like stars and gas and dust, we get a certain mass. When we use any other technique at all to measure the mass, we get a much higher number. So the natural conclusion is that not all the matter in the universe is all hot and glowy. Maybe some if it is, you know, dark.
But hold on. First we should check our math. Are we sure we’re not just getting some physics wrong?
Right, magnetars. Perhaps one of the most ferocious beasts to inhabit the cosmos. Loud, unruly, and temperamental, they blast their host galaxies with wave after wave of electromagnetic radiation, running the gamut from soft radio waves to hard X-rays. They are rare and poorly understood.
Some of these magnetars spit out a lot of radio waves, and frequently. The perfect way to observe them
would be to have a network of high-quality radio dishes across the world, all
continuously observing to capture every bleep and bloop. Some sort of network
of deep-space dishes.
WFIRST ain’t your grandma’s space telescope. Despite having the same size mirror as the surprisingly reliable Hubble Space Telescope, clocking in at 2.4 meters across, this puppy will pack a punch with a gigantic 300 megapixel camera, enabling it to snap a single image with an area a hundred times greater than the Hubble.
With that fantastic camera and the addition of one of the most sensitive coronagraphs ever made – letting it block out distant starlight on a star-by-star basis – this next-generation telescope will uncover some of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos.
We’ve got a mystery on our hands. The surface of the sun has a temperature of about 6,000 Kelvin – hot enough to make it glow bright, hot white. But the surface of the sun is not its last later, just like the surface of the Earth is not its outermost layer. The sun has a thin but extended atmosphere called the corona. And that corona has a temperature of a few million Kelvin.
How does the corona have such a higher temperature than the surface?
The expansion of our universe is accelerating. Every single day, the distances between galaxies grows ever greater. And what’s more, that expansion rate is getting faster and faster – that’s what it means to live in a universe with accelerated expansion. This strange phenomenon is called dark energy, and was first spotted in surveys of distant supernova explosions about twenty years ago. Since then, multiple independent lines of evidence have all come to the same morose conclusion: the universe is getting fatter and fatter faster and faster.
Look at a galaxy, what do you see? Probably lots of stars. Nebulae too. And that’s probably it. A whole bunch of stars and gas in a variety of colorful assortments; a delight to the eye. And buried among those stars, if you looked carefully enough, you might find planets, black holes, white dwarves, asteroids, and all sorts of assorted chunky odds and ends. The usual galactic milieu.
What you wouldn’t see is what most of that galaxy is really made of. You wouldn’t see the invisible, the hidden. You wouldn’t see the bulk of that galactic mass. You wouldn’t see the dark matter.
Apparently not all supernovas work. And when they fail, they leave behind a half-chewed remnant, still burning from leftover heat but otherwise lifeless: a zombie star. Astronomers aren’t sure how many of these should-be-dead creatures lurk in the interstellar depths, but with recent simulations scientists are making a list of their telltale signatures so that future surveys can potentially track them down.
It’s relatively easy for galaxies to make stars. Start out with a bunch of random blobs of gas and dust. Typically those blobs will be pretty warm. To turn them into stars, you have to cool them off. By dumping all their heat in the form of radiation, they can compress. Dump more heat, compress more. Repeat for a million years or so.
Eventually pieces of the gas cloud shrink and shrink, compressing themselves into a tight little knots. If the densities inside those knots get high enough, they trigger nuclear fusion and voila: stars are born.
Imagine yourself in a boat on a great ocean, the water stretching to the distant horizon, with the faintest hints of land just beyond that. It’s morning, just before dawn, and a dense fog has settled along the coast. As the chill grips you on your early watch, you catch out of the corner of your eye a lighthouse, feebly flickering through the fog.