By looking deeper into space (and farther back in time), astronomers and cosmologists continue to push the boundaries of what is known about the Universe. Thanks to improvements in instrumentation and observation techniques, we are now at the point where astronomers are able to observe some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe – which in turn is providing vital clues about how our Universe evolved.
Ever since astronomers realized that the Universe is in a constant state of expansion and that a massive explosion likely started it all 13.8 billion years ago (the Big Bang), there have been unresolved questions about when and how the first stars formed. Based on data gathered by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and similar missions, this is believed to have happened about 100 million years after the Big Bang.
Much of the details of how this complex process worked have remained a mystery. However, new evidence gathered by a team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy indicates that the first stars must have formed rather quickly. Using data from the Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, the team observed a cloud of gas where star formation was taking place just 850 million years after the Big Bang.
For decades, astronomers have been trying to see as far as they can into the deep Universe. By observing the cosmos as it was shortly after the Big Bang, astrophysicists and cosmologists hope to learn all they can about the early formation of the Universe and its subsequent evolution. Thanks to instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have been able to see parts of the Universe that were previously inaccessible.
But even the venerable Hubble is incapable of seeing all that was taking place during the early Universe. However, using the combined power of some of the newest astronomical observatories from around the world, a team of international astronomers led by Tokyo University’s Institute of Astronomy observed 39 previously-undiscovered ancient galaxies, a find that could have major implications for astronomy and cosmology.
It takes a rich and diverse set of complex molecules for things like stars, galaxies, planets and lifeforms like us to exist. But before humans and all the complex molecules we’re made of could exist, there had to be that first primordial molecule that started a long chain of chemical events that led to everything you see around you today.
Though it’s been long theorized to exist, the lack of observational evidence for that molecule was problematic for scientists. Now they’ve found it and those scientists can rest easy. Their predictive theory wins!
It allowed us to spot auroras on Saturn and planets orbiting distant suns. It permitted astronomers to see galaxies in the early stages of formation, and look back to some of the earliest periods in the Universe. It also measured the distances to Cepheid variable stars more accurately than ever before, which helped astrophysicists constrain how fast the Universe is expanding (the Hubble Constant).
It did all of this and more, which is why no space telescope is as recognized and revered as the Hubble Space Telescope. And while it’s mission is currently scheduled to end in 2021, Hubble is still breaking new ground. Thanks to the efforts of a research team from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), Hubble recently obtained the deepest images of the Universe ever taken from space.
According to the Big Bang Theory of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago as all matter in the Universe began to expand from a single point of infinite density. Over the next few billion years, the fundamental forces of the Universe began to separate from each other and subatomic particles and atoms formed. In time, this first stars and galaxies formed, giving rise to the large-scale structure of the Universe.
However, it was only by roughly 1 billion years after the Big Bang that the Universe began to become transparent. By about 12 billion years ago, intergalactic space was filled with gas that was much less transparent than it is now, with variations from place to place. To address why this was, a team of astronomers recently used the world’s largest telescope to search for galaxies of young stars in a huge volume of space.
For the sake of their study, the team used the Subaru Telescope – the world’s largest telescope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii – to examine a 500 million light-year volume of space as it existed roughly 12 billion years ago. Using this data, the team considered two possible models that could account for the variations in transparency that astronomers have been seeing during this cosmic epoch.
On the one hand, if the region contained a small number of galaxies, the team would conclude that startlight could not penetrate very far through the intergalactic gas. On the other hand, if it contained an unusually large number of galaxies, this would indicate that the region had cooled significantly over the previous several hundred million years. Prior to their observations, Beck and his team were expecting to find that it was the latter.
However, what they found was that the region contained far fewer galaxies than expected – which indicated that the opaqueness of the region was due to a lack of starlight. As Steven Furlanetto, a UCLA professor of astronomy and a co-author of the research, explained in a recent UCLA press release:
“It was a rare case in astronomy where two competing models, both of which were compelling in their own way, offered precisely opposite predictions, and we were lucky that those predictions were testable… It is not that the opacity is a cause of the lack of galaxies. Instead, it’s the other way around.”
In addition to addressing an enduring mystery in astronomy, this study also has implications for our understanding of how the Universe evolved over time. According to our current cosmological models, the period that took place roughly 380,000 t0 150 million years after the Big Bang is known as the “Dark Ages”. Most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons at this time, which means radiation from this period is undetectable by our current instruments.
However, by about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the first stars and galaxies had formed. It is further believed that ultraviolet light from these first galaxies filled the Universe and is what allowed for the gas in deep space to become transparent. This would have occurred earlier in regions with more galaxies, the astronomers concluded, hence why there are variations in transparency.
In short, if more ultraviolet radiation from galaxies would lead to greater transparency in the early Universe, then the existence of fewer nearby galaxies would cause certain regions to be murkier. In the future, Becker and his team hope to further study this region of space and others like it in the hope that it will reveal clues about how the first galaxies illuminated the Universe during that early period, which remains a subject of inquiry at this point.
This research is also expected to shed more light on how the early Universe evolved, gradually giving rise to the one that are familiar with today. And as next-generation instruments are able to probe deeper into space (and hence, further back in time), we just may come to understand how existence as we know it all unfolded.
For instance, a team of astronomers recently used Hubble to locate the most distant star ever discovered. This hot blue star, which was located in a galaxy cluster, existed just 4.4 billion years after the Big Bang. The discovery of this star is expected to provide new insights into the formation and evolution of stars and galaxy clusters during the early Universe, as well as the nature of dark matter itself.
The discovery was made by an international team of scientists led by Patrick Kelly (of the University of Minnesota), Jose Diego (of the Instituto de Física de Cantabria in Spain) and Steven Rodney (of the University of South Carolina). Together, they observed the distant star in the galaxy cluster MACS J1149-2223 in April 2016 while studying the supernova explosion known as heic1525 (aka. Refsdal).
Using a technique known as gravitational microlensing, team relied on the total mass of the galaxy cluster itself to magnify the light coming from the supernova. However, while looking for this supernova, the team found an unexpected point source of light in the same galaxy. As Patrick Kelly explained in a recent Hubblepress release:
“Like the Refsdal supernova explosion the light of this distant star got magnified, making it visible for Hubble. This star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions.”
The light observed from this star – named Lensed Star 1 (LS1) – was emitted just 4.4 billion years after the Big Bang (when the Universe was just 30% of its current age). The light was only detectable thanks to the microlensing effect caused by mass of the galaxy cluster and a compact object about three times the mass of our Sun within the galaxy itself. This allowed for the light coming from the star to be magnified by a factor of 2000.
Interestingly enough, the team also realized that this was not the first time this star had been observed. During a previous observation of the galaxy cluster, made in October 2016, the star was also acquired in an image – but went unnoticed at the time. As Diego noted:
“We were actually surprised to not have seen this second image in earlier observations, as also the galaxy the star is located in can be seen twice. We assume that the light from the second image has been deflected by another moving massive object for a long time — basically hiding the image from us. And only when the massive object moved out of the line of sight the second image of the star became visible.”
After finding the star in their survey, the team used Hubble again to obtain spectra from LS1 and determined that it is a B-type supergiant star – an extremely bright and blue class of star that has several times the mass of our Sun and is more than twice as hot. Given the star’s age, the discovery of LS1 is find on its own. At the same time, the discovery of this star will allow astronomers to gain new insights into the galaxy cluster itself.
As Steven Rodney indicated, “We know that the microlensing was caused by either a star, a neutron star, or a stellar-mass black hole.” As such, the discovery of LS1 will allow astronomers to study these objects (the latter of which are invisible) and estimate how many of them exist within this galaxy cluster.
Learning more about the constituents of galaxy clusters – the largest and most massive structures in the Universe – will also provide important clues about the composition of the Universe overall and how it evolved over time. This includes the important role played by dark matter in the evolution the Universe. As Kelly explained:
“If dark matter is at least partially made up of comparatively low-mass black holes, as it was recently proposed, we should be able to see this in the light curve of LS1. Our observations do not favour the possibility that a high fraction of dark matter is made of these primordial black holes with about 30 times the mass of the Sun.”
With the deployment of next-generation telescopes – like the James Webb Space Telescope – astronomers hope to learn even more about the earliest stars in the Universe. In so doing, they will be able to learn more about how it evolved over the past 10 billion years or so, and gain vital clues as to how dark matter played a role. In the meantime, Hubble still plays an all-important role in expanding our understanding of the cosmos.
And be sure to enjoy this episode of Hubblecast that explains this impressive find, courtesy of the ESA:
When the James Webb Space Telescope takes to space, some tremendous scientific discoveries are expected to result. As the spiritual and scientific successor to the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler Space Telescopes, this space observatory will use its advanced suite of infrared instruments to the look back at the early Universe, study the Solar System, and help characterize extra-solar planets.
Unfortunately, the launch of this mission has been delayed several times now, with the launch date now set for some time in 2019. And based on the amount of work NASA needs to do complete the JWST before launch, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) believes that more delays are coming and believes that the project is likely to exceed the cost cap set by Congress in 2011 at $8 billion.
Part of the problem is that all the remaining schedule reserve – the extra time set aside in the event of delays or unforeseen risks – was recently used to address technical issues. These include the “anomalous readings” detected from the telescope during vibration testing back in December 2016. NASA responded to this by giving the project up to 4 months of schedule reserve by extending the launch window.
However, in 2017, NASA delayed the launch window again by 5 months, from October 2018 to a between March and June 2019. This delay was requested by the project team, who indicated that they needed to address lessons learned from the initial folding and deployment of the observatory’s sunshield. As Eric Smith, the program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters, explained to Congress at the time:
“Webb’s spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft. The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer. Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systemmatically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”
Given the remaining integration and test work that lies ahead, more delays are expected. According to the GAO, it is this phase where problems are most likely to be found and schedules revised. Coupled with the fact that only 1.5 months of schedule reserves remain until the end of the launch window, they anticipate that additional launch delays are likely, which will also require budget increases.
Initially, the budget estimates that were set by Congress indicated that the observatory would cost $1.6 billion and would launch by 2011, with an overall cost cap set at $8 billion. However, NASA has revised the budget multiple times since then (in conjunction with the multiple delays) and estimates that the budget for a 2019 launch window would now be $8.8 billion.
Once deployed, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope ever built and will serve thousands of astronomers worldwide. As a collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), it also representative of the new era of international cooperation. But by far, the most impressive thing about this mission is the scientific discoveries it is expected to make.
It’s 6.5 meter (21-foot) infrared-optimized telescopes will search to a distance of over 13 billion light years, allowing it to study the first stars and galaxies that formed. It will also allow astronomers to study the atmospheres of Solar Planets and exoplanets and other objects within our Solar System. As such, and delays and cost overruns in the project are cause for concern.
In the meantime, the project’s Standing Review Board will conduct an independent review in early 2018 to determine if the June 2019 launch window can still be met. With so many experiments and surveys planned for the telescope, it would be no exaggeration to say that a lot is riding on its successful completion and deployment. Best of luck passing review James Webb Space Telescope!
It is a well known fact among astronomers and cosmologists that the farther into the Universe you look, the further back in time you are seeing. And the closer astronomers are able to see to the Big Bang, which took place 13.8 billion years ago, the more interesting the discoveries tend to become. It is these finds that teach us the most about the earliest periods of the Universe and its subsequent evolution.
As with other SMBHs, this particular discovery (designated J1342+0928) is a quasar, a class of super bright objects that consist of a black hole accreting matter at the center of a massive galaxy. The object was discovered during the course of a survey for distant objects, which combined infrared data from the WISE mission with ground-based surveys. The team then followed up with data from the Carnegie Observatory’s Magellan telescopes in Chile.
As with all distant cosmological objects, J1342+0928’s distance was determined by measuring its redshift. By measuring how much the wavelength of an object’s light is stretched by the expansion of the Universe before it reaches Earth, astronomers are able to determine how far it had to travel to get here. In this case, the quasar had a redshift of 7.54, which means that it took more than 13 billion years for its light to reach us.
As Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory (and a co-author on the study) explained in a Carnegie press release:
“This great distance makes such objects extremely faint when viewed from Earth. Early quasars are also very rare on the sky. Only one quasar was known to exist at a redshift greater than seven before now, despite extensive searching.”
Given its age and mass, the discovery of this quasar was quite the surprise for the study team. As Daniel Stern, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the study, indicated in a NASA press release, “This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form.”
Essentially, this quasar existed at a time when the Universe was just beginning to emerge from what cosmologists call the “Dark Ages”. During this period, which began roughly 380,000 years to 150 million years after the Big Bang, most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.
The Universe remained in this state, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies. This period is known as the “Reinozation Epoch”, which lasted from 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang and was characterized by the first stars, galaxies and quasars forming. It is so-named because the energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen of the Universe to get excited and ionize.
Once the Universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space and the Universe officially became transparent to light. This is what makes the discovery of this quasar so interesting. As the team observed, much of the hydrogen surrounding it is neutral, which means it is not only the most distant quasar ever observed, but also the only example of a quasar that existed before the Universe became reionized.
In other words, J1342+0928 existed during a major transition period for the Universe, which happens to be one of the current frontiers of astrophysics. As if this wasn’t enough, the team was also confounded by the object’s mass. For a black hole to have become so massive during this early period of the Universe, there would have to be special conditions to allow for such rapid growth.
What these conditions are, however, remains a mystery. Whatever the case may be, this newly-found SMBH appears to be consuming matter at the center of a galaxy at an astounding rate. And while its discovery has raised many questions, it is anticipated that the deployment of future telescopes will reveal more about this quasar and its cosmological period. As Stern said:
“With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years.”
These next-generation missions include the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Whereas Euclid will study objects located 10 billion years in the past in order to measure how dark energy influenced cosmic evolution, WFIRST will perform wide-field near-infrared surveys to measure the light coming from a billion galaxies.
Both missions are expected to reveal more objects like J1342+0928. At present, scientists predict that there are only 20 to 100 quasars as bright and as distant as J1342+0928 in the sky. As such, they were most pleased with this discovery, which is expected to provide us with fundamental information about the Universe when it was only 5% of its current age.
The speed of light gives us an amazing tool for studying the Universe. Because light only travels a mere 300,000 kilometers per second, when we see distant objects, we’re looking back in time.
You’re not seeing the Sun as it is today, you’re seeing an 8 minute old Sun. You’re seeing 642 year-old Betelgeuse. 2.5 million year-old Andromeda. In fact, you can keep doing this, looking further out, and deeper into time. Since the Universe is expanding today, it was closer in the past.
Run the Universe clock backwards, right to the beginning, and you get to a place that was hotter and denser than it is today. So dense that the entire Universe shortly after the Big Bang was just a soup of protons, neutrons and electrons, with nothing holding them together.
In fact, once it expanded and cooled down a bit, the entire Universe was merely as hot and as dense as the core of a star like our Sun. It was cool enough for ionized atoms of hydrogen to form.
Because the Universe has the conditions of the core of a star, it had the temperature and pressure to actually fuse hydrogen into helium and other heavier elements. Based on the ratio of those elements we see in the Universe today: 74% hydrogen, 25% helium and 1% miscellaneous, we know how long the Universe was in this “whole Universe is a star” condition.
It lasted about 17 minutes. From 3 minutes after the Big Bang until about 20 minutes after the Big Bang. In those few, short moments, clowns gathered all the helium they would ever need to haunt us with a lifetime of balloon animals.
The fusion process generates photons of gamma radiation. In the core of our Sun, these photons bounce from atom to atom, eventually making their way out of the core, through the Sun’s radiative zone, and eventually out into space. This process can take tens of thousands of years. But in the early Universe, there was nowhere for these primordial photons of gamma radiation to go. Everywhere was more hot, dense Universe.
The Universe was continuing to expand, and finally, just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, the Universe was finally cool enough for these atoms of hydrogen and helium to attract free electrons, turning them into neutral atoms.
This was the moment of first light in the Universe, between 240,000 and 300,000 years after the Big Bang, known as the Era of Recombination. The first time that photons could rest for a second, attached as electrons to atoms. It was at this point that the Universe went from being totally opaque, to transparent.
And this is the earliest possible light that astronomers can see. Go ahead, say it with me: the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Because the Universe has been expanding over the 13.8 billion years from then until now, the those earliest photons were stretched out, or red-shifted, from ultraviolet and visible light into the microwave end of the spectrum.
If you could see the Universe with microwave eyes, you’d see that first blast of radiation in all directions. The Universe celebrating its existence.
After that first blast of light, everything was dark, there were no stars or galaxies, just enormous amounts of these primordial elements. At the beginning of these dark ages, the temperature of the entire Universe was about 4000 kelvin. Compare that with the 2.7 kelvin we see today. By the end of the dark ages, 150 million years later, the temperature was a more reasonable 60 kelvin.
For the next 850 million years or so, these elements came together into monster stars of pure hydrogen and helium. Without heavier elements, they were free to form stars with dozens or even hundreds of times the mass of our own Sun. These are the Population III stars, or the first stars, and we don’t have telescopes powerful enough to see them yet. Astronomers indirectly estimate that those first stars formed about 560 million years after the Big Bang.
Then, those first stars exploded as supernovae, more massive stars formed and they detonated as well. It’s seriously difficult to imagine what that time must have looked like, with stars going off like fireworks. But we know it was so common and so violent that it lit up the whole Universe in an era called reionization. Most of the Universe was hot plasma.
The early Universe was hot and awful, and there weren’t a lot of the heavier elements that life as we know it depends on. Just think about it. You can’t get oxygen without fusion in a star, even multiple generations. Our own Solar System is the result of several generations of supernovae that exploded, seeding our region with heavier and heavier elements.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, the Universe cooled from 4000 kelvin down to 60 kelvin. About 10 million years after the Big Bang, the temperature of the Universe was 100 C, the boiling point of water. And then 7 million years later, it was down to 0 C, the freezing point of water.
This has led astronomers to theorize that for about 7 million years, liquid water was present across the Universe… everywhere. And wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life.
So it’s possible, possible that primitive life could have formed with the Universe was just 10 million years old. The physicist Avi Loeb calls this the habitable Epoch of the Universe. No evidence, but it’s a pretty cool idea to think about.
I always find it absolutely mind bending to think that all around us in every direction is the first light from the Universe. It’s taken 13.8 billion years to reach us, and although we need microwave eyes to actually see it, it’s there, everywhere.