According to the most widely-accepted model of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. As the Universe cooled, the fundamental laws of physics (the electroweak force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity) and the first hydrogen atoms formed. By 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen and very few photons (the Cosmic Dark Ages). During the “Epoch of Reionization” that followed, the first stars and galaxies formed, reoinizing the neutral hydrogen and causing the Universe to become transparent.
For astronomers, the Epoch of Reionization still holds many mysteries, like when certain heavy elements formed. This includes the element carbon, a key ingredient in the formation of planets, an important element in organic processes, and the basis for life as we know it. According to a new study by the ARC Center of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), it appears that triply-ionized carbon (C iv) existed far sooner than previously thought. Their findings could have drastic implications for our understanding of cosmic evolution.
In a recent study submitted to MNRAS, a collaborative research team has utilized the first set of data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) discovering a galaxy candidate, CEERS-93316, that formed approximately 250 million years after the Bing Bang, which also set a new redshift record of z = 16.7. This finding is extremely intriguing as it demonstrates the power of JWST, which only started sending back its first set of data a few weeks ago. CEERS stands for Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey, and was specifically created for imaging with JWST.
Studying the universe is hard. Really hard. Like insanely, ridiculously hard. Think of the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, because studying the universe is quite literally exponentially way harder than whatever you came up with. Studying the universe is hard for two reasons: space and time. When we look at an object in the night sky, we’re looking back in time, as it has taken a finite amount of time for the light from that object to reach your eyes. The star Sirius is one of the brightest objects in the night sky and is located approximately 8.6 light-years from Earth. This means that when you look at it, you’re seeing what it looked like 8.6 years ago, as the speed of light is finite at 186,000 miles per second and a light year is the time it takes for light to travel in one year. Now think of something way farther away than Sirius, like the Big Bang, which supposedly took place 13.8 billion years ago. This means when scientists study the Big Bang, they’re attempting to look back in time 13.8 billion years. Even with all our advanced scientific instruments, it’s extremely hard to look back that far in time. It’s so hard that the Hubble Space Telescope has been in space since 1990 and just recently spotted the most distant single star ever detected in outer space at 12.9 billion light-years away. That’s 30 years of scanning the heavens, which is a testament to the vastness of the universe, and hence why studying the universe is hard. Because studying the universe is so hard, scientists often turn to computer simulations, or models, to help speed up the science aspect and ultimately give us a better understanding of how the universe works without waiting 30 years for the next big discovery.
Since the Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilee first studied the heavens using a telescope he built himself, astronomers have been pushing the boundaries of what they can observe. After centuries of progress, they have been able to study and catalog objects in all but the earliest periods of the Universe. But thanks to next-generation instruments and technologies, astronomers will soon be able to observe the “Cosmic Dawn” era – ca. 50 million to billion years after the Big Bang.
In recent years, astronomers have made discoveries that preview what this will be like, the most recent of which is the galaxy candidate known as HD1. This galaxy is about 13.5 billion light-years from Earth (32.2 billion light-years in terms of “proper distance“), making it the farthest ever observed. This discovery implies that galaxies existed as early as 300 million years after the Big Bang, a finding which could have drastic implications for astronomy and cosmology!
The building blocks of life can, and did, spontaneously assemble under the right conditions. That’s called spontaneous generation, or abiogenesis. Of course, many of the details remain hidden to us, and we just don’t know exactly how it all happened. Or how frequently it could happen.