New Telescopes to Study the Aftermath of the Big Bang

A photograph of a CMB-S4 detector wafer being prepared for testing in a cryostat at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Credit: Thor Swift/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Astronomers are currently pushing the frontiers of astronomy. At this very moment, observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are visualizing the earliest stars and galaxies in the Universe, which formed during a period known as the “Cosmic Dark Ages.” This period was previously inaccessible to telescopes because the Universe was permeated by clouds of neutral hydrogen. As a result, the only light is visible today as relic radiation from the Big Bang – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – or as the 21 cm spectral line created by the reionization of hydrogen (aka. the Hydrogen Line).

Now that the veil of the Dark Ages is being slowly pulled away, scientists are contemplating the next frontier in astronomy and cosmology by observing “primordial gravitational waves” created by the Big Bang. In recent news, it was announced that the National Science Foundation (NSF) had awarded $3.7 million to the University of Chicago, the first part of a grant that could reach up to $21.4 million. The purpose of this grant is to fund the development of next-generation telescopes that will map the CMB and the gravitational waves created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.

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The Big Bang: What is it? Why study it? What happened before? How will it all end?

Credit: NASA

Approximately 13.8 billion years ago, the greatest event in all of existence occurred that literally created existence itself. This event is known as the Big Bang, and it’s responsible for the estimated septillion number of stars that are scattered across the vast reaches of the unknown, including the one our small, blue world orbits. However, other than knowing that the Big Bang occurred, there is still a septillion amount of information we still don’t know about the greatest event in the history of existence.

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Have We Seen the First Glimpse of Supermassive Dark Stars?

Three dark star candidates, JADES-GS-z13-0 (top), JADES-GS-z12-0 (middle), and JADES-GS-z11-0 (bottom) were originally identified as galaxies by the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) team. Recently, a team of researchers have hypothesized these candidates could be “dark stars,” which are theoretical objects far more massive and brighter than our sun, and allegedly powered by demolishing particles of dark matter. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) examines what are known as dark stars, which are estimated to be much larger than our Sun, are hypothesized to have existed in the early universe, and are allegedly powered by the demolition of dark matter particles. This study was conducted using spectroscopic analysis from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and more specifically, the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES), and holds the potential to help astronomers better understand dark stars and the purpose of dark matter, the latter of which continues to be an enigma for the scientific community, as well as how it could have contributed to the early universe.

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Are Black Holes the Source of Dark Energy?

An illustration of cosmic expansion. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

By the 1920s, astronomers learned that the Universe was expanding as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted. This led to a debate among astrophysicists between those who believed the Universe began with a Big Bang and those who believed the Universe existed in a Steady State. By the 1960s, the first measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) indicated that the former was the most likely scenario. And by the 1990s, the Hubble Deep Fields provided the deepest images of the Universe ever taken, revealing galaxies as they appeared just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

Over time, these discoveries led to an astounding realization: the rate at which the Universe is expanding (aka. the Hubble Constant) has not been constant over time! This led to the theory of Dark Energy, an invisible force that counteracts gravity and causes this expansion to accelerate. In a series of papers, an international team of researchers led by the University of Hawaii reported that black holes in ancient and dormant galaxies were growing more than expected. This constitutes (they claim) the first evidence that black holes could be the source of Dark Energy.

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“Early Dark Energy” Could Explain the Crisis in Cosmology

A diagram of the evolution of the observable universe. The Dark Ages are the object of study in this new research, and were preceded by the CMB, or Afterglow Light Pattern. By NASA/WMAP Science Team - Original version: NASA; modified by Cherkash, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11885244
A diagram of the evolution of the observable universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP/Wikimedia

In 1916, Einstein finished his Theory of General Relativity, which describes how gravitational forces alter the curvature of spacetime. Among other things, this theory predicted that the Universe is expanding, which was confirmed by the observations of Edwin Hubble in 1929. Since then, astronomers have looked farther into space (and hence, back in time) to measure how fast the Universe is expanding – aka. the Hubble Constant. These measurements have become increasingly accurate thanks to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomers have traditionally done this in two ways: directly measuring it locally (using variable stars and supernovae) and indirectly based on redshift measurements of the CMB and cosmological models. Unfortunately, these two methods have produced different values over the past decade. As a result, astronomers have been looking for a possible solution to this problem, known as the “Hubble Tension.” According to a new paper by a team of astrophysicists, the existence of “Early Dark Energy” may be the solution cosmologists have been looking for.

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Even a Cyclical Universe Needed to Come From Somewhere

Could our Universe be part of a wider Multiverse? And could these other Universes support life? Credit: Jaime Salcido/EAGLE Collaboration

In the beginning…

The first words of the book of Genesis make a declarative statement. God created Heaven and Earth, and thus begins the cosmic story. While not all creation myths have an act of beginning, most do. Humans are storytellers, and we like stories with a beginning. This origin need is deep within us and is even part of our scientific worldview. As is so often said in science, effects have causes. This cause and effect process is a powerful tool for understanding the world around us, but it’s not without its problems, particularly with the origin of the universe.

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The Record for the Farthest Galaxy just got Broken Again, now just 250 million years after the Big Bang

Artist's illustration of a protogalaxy. Midjourney AI.
Artist's illustration of a protogalaxy. This is not real, it's just a colorful image generated by Midjourney AI.

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.

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These Galaxies are Definitely Living in a Simulation

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.

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Primordial Helium, Left Over From the Big Bang, is Leaking Out of the Earth

The center of Lagoon Nebula, captured by the Hubble Telescope. Nebulae are the primary sources of helium-3, and the amount of He-3 leaking from the Earth’s core suggests the planet formed inside the solar nebula, according to a new study in the AGU journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems. Credit: NASA, ESA

Something ancient and primordial lurks in Earth’s core. Helium 3 (3He) was created in the first minutes after the Big Bang, and some of it found its way through time and space to take up residence in Earth’s deepest regions. How do we know this?

Scientists can measure it as it slowly escapes.

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Could our Universe be Someone’s Chemistry Project?

This is a rendering of gas velocity in a massive galaxy cluster in IllustrisTNG. Black areas are hardly moving, and white areas are moving at greater than 1000km/second. The black areas are calm cosmic filaments, the white areas are near super-massive black holes (SMBHs). The SMBHs are blowing away the gas and preventing star formation. Image: IllustrisTNG

It is a pivotal time for astrophysicists, cosmologists, and philosophers alike. In the coming years, next-generation space and ground-based telescopes will come online that will use cutting-edge technology and machine learning to probe the deepest depths of the cosmos. What they find there, with any luck, will allow scientists to address some of the most enduring questions about the origins of life and the Universe itself.

Alas, one question that we may never be able to answer is the most pressing of all: if the Universe was conceived in a Big Bang, what was here before that? According to a new op-ed by Prof. Abraham Loeb (which recently appeared in Scientific American), the answer may be stranger than even the most “exotic” explanations. As he argued, the cosmos as we know it may be a “baby Universe” that was created by an advanced technological civilization in a lab!

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