Thanks to the most advanced telescopes, astronomers today can see what objects looked like 13 billion years ago, roughly 800 million years after the Big Bang. Unfortunately, they are still unable to pierce the veil of the cosmic Dark Ages, a period that lasted from 370,000 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, where the Universe was shrowded with light-obscuring neutral hydrogen. Because of this, our telescopes cannot see when the first stars and galaxies formed – ca., 100 to 500 million years after the Big Bang.
This period is known as the Cosmic Dawn and represents the “final frontier” of cosmological surveys to astronomers. This November, NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch to space. Thanks to its sensitivity and advanced infrared optics, Webb will be the first observatory capable of witnessing the birth of galaxies. According to a new study from the Université de Genève, Switzerland, the ability to see the Cosmic Dawn will provide answers to today’s greatest cosmological mysteries.
Things are not looking very good for the Hubble Space Telescope right now. On Sunday, June 13th, the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working, prompting the main computer to put the telescope into safe mode. While the telescope itself and its science instruments remain in working order, science operations have been suspended until the operations team can figure out how to get the payload computer back online.
While attempting to restart the computer, the operations team has also tried to trace the issue to specific components in the payload computer and switch to their backup modules. As of June 30th, the team began looking into the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the Power Control Unit (PCU). Meanwhile, NASA is busy preparing and testing procedures to switch to backup hardware if either of these components are the culprit.
It is hard for humans to wrap their heads around the fact that there are galaxies so far away that the light coming from them can be warped in a way that they actually experience a type of time delay. But that is exactly what is happening with extreme forms of gravitational lensing, such as those that give us the beautiful images of Einstein rings. In fact, the time dilation around some of these galaxies can be so extreme that the light from a single event, such as a supernova, can actually show up on Earth at dramatically different times. That is exactly what a team led by Dr. Steven Rodney at the University of South Carolina and Dr. Gabriel Brammer of the University of Copenhagen has found. Except three copies of this supernova have already appeared – and the team thinks it will show up again one more time, 20 years from now.
Cosmology is now stranger to large scale surveys. The discipline prides itself on data collection, and when the data it is collecting is about galaxies that are billions of years old its easy to see why more data would be better. Now, with a flurry of 29 new papers, the partial results from the largest cosmological survey ever – the Dark Energy Survey (DES) – have been released. And it largely confirms what we already knew.
After galaxies began to form in the early universe, the universe continued to expand. The gravitational attraction between galaxies worked to pull galaxies together into superclusters, while dark energy and its resulting cosmic expansion worked to drive these clusters apart. As a result, the universe is filled with tight clusters of galaxies separated by vast voids of mostly empty space.
Where is all the missing matter? That question has plagued astronomers for decades, because the Universe looks emptier than it should, given current theories about its makeup. Most of the Universe (70%) appears to be composed of Dark Energy, the mysterious force which is causing the Universe’s rate of expansion to increase. Another 25% of the Universe is Dark Matter, an unknown substance which cannot be seen, but has been theorized to explain the otherwise inexplicable gravitational forces which govern the formation of galaxies. That leaves Baryonic Matter – all the normal ‘stuff’ like you, me, the trees, the planets, and the stars – to make up just 5% of the Universe. But when astronomers look out into the sky, there doesn’t even seem to be enough normal matter to make up 5%. Some of the normal matter is missing!
As our Sun moves along its orbit in the Milky Way, it is gravitationally tugged by nearby stars, nebulae, and other masses. Our galaxy is not a uniform distribution of mass, and our Sun experiences small accelerations in addition to its overall orbital motion. Measuring those small tugs has been nearly impossible, but a new study shows how it can be done.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.” – Carl Sagan “The Demon-Haunted World.”
Learning about the Universe, I’ve felt spiritual moments, as Sagan describes them, as I better understand my connection to the wider everything. Like when I first learned that I was literally made of the ashes of the stars – the atoms in my body spread into the eternal ether by supernovae. Another spiritual moment was seeing this image for the first time:
Back in 2015, construction began on a new telescope called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). Later this year, it will begin its five-year mission. Its goal? To create a 3D map of the Universe with unprecedented detail, showing the distribution of matter.
That detailed map will allow astronomers to investigate important aspects of cosmology, including dark energy and its role in the expansion of the Universe.