How Many Atoms Are There in the Universe?

It’s no secret that the universe is an extremely vast place. That which we can observe (aka. “the known Universe”) is estimated to span roughly  93 billion light years. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially when you consider its only what we’ve observed so far. And given the sheer volume of that space, one would expect that the amount of matter contained within would be similarly impressive.

But interestingly enough, it is when you look at that matter on the smallest of scales that the numbers become the most mind-boggling. For example, it is believed that between 120 to 300 sextillion (that’s 1.2 x 10²³ to 3.0 x 10²³) stars exist within our observable universe. But looking closer, at the atomic scale, the numbers get even more inconceivable.

At this level, it is estimated that the there are between 1078 to 1082 atoms in the known, observable universe. In layman’s terms, that works out to between ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion atoms.

And yet, those numbers don’t accurately reflect how much matter the universe may truly house. As stated already, this estimate accounts only for the observable universe which reaches 46 billion light years in any direction, and is based on where the expansion of space has taken the most distant objects observed.

The history of theA billion years after the big bang, hydrogen atoms were mysteriously torn apart into a soup of ions.universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com
The history of the universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com

While a German supercomputer recently ran a simulation and estimated that around 500 billion galaxies exist within range of observation, a more conservative estimate places the number at around 300 billion. Since the number of stars in a galaxy can run up to 400 billion, then the total number of stars may very well be around 1.2×1023  – or just over 100 sextillion.

On average, each star can weigh about 1035 grams. Thus, the total mass would be about 1058 grams (that’s 1.0 x 1052 metric tons). Since each gram of matter is known to have about 1024 protons, or about the same number of hydrogen atoms (since one hydrogen atom has only one proton), then the total number of hydrogen atoms would be roughly 1086 – aka. one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion.

Within this observable universe, this matter is spread homogeneously throughout space, at least when averaged over distances longer than 300 million light-years. On smaller scales, however, matter is observed to form into the clumps of hierarchically-organized luminous matter that we are all familiar with.

In short, most atoms are condensed into stars, most stars are condensed into galaxies, most galaxies into clusters, most clusters into superclusters and, finally, into the largest-scale structures like the Great Wall of galaxies (aka. the Sloan Great Wall). On a smaller scale, these clumps are permeated by clouds of dust particles, gas clouds, asteroids, and other small clumps of stellar matter.

Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.
Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

The observable matter of the Universe is also spread isotropically; meaning that no direction of observation seems different from any other and each region of the sky has roughly the same content. The Universe is also bathed in a wave of highly isotropic microwave radiation that corresponds to a thermal equilibrium of roughly 2.725 kelvin (just above Absolute Zero).

The hypothesis that the large-scale universe is homogeneous and isotropic is known as the cosmological principle. This states that physical laws act uniformly throughout the universe and should, therefore, produce no observable irregularities in the large scale structure. This theory has been backed up by astronomical observations which have helped to chart the evolution of the structure of the universe since it was initially laid down by the Big Bang.

The current consensus amongst scientists is that the vast majority of matter was created in this event, and that the expansion of the Universe since has not added new matter to the equation. Rather, it is believed that what has been taking place for the past 13.7 billion years has simply been an expansion or dispersion of the masses that were initially created. That is, no amount of matter that wasn’t there in the beginning has been added during this expansion.

However, Einstein’s  equivalence of mass and energy presents a slight complication to this theory. This is a consequence arising out of Special Relativity, in which the addition of energy to an object increases its mass incrementally. Between all the fusions and fissions, atoms are regularly converted from particles to energies and back again.

Atom density is greater at left (the beginning of the experiment) than 80 milliseconds after the simulated Big Bang. Credit: Chen-Lung Hung
Atom density is greater at left (the beginning of the experiment) than 80 milliseconds after the simulated Big Bang. Credit: Chen-Lung Hung

Nevertheless, observed on a large-scale, the overall matter density of the universe remains the same over time. The present density of the observable universe is estimated to be very low – roughly 9.9 × 10-30 grams per cubic centimeter. This mass-energy appears to consist of 68.3% dark energy, 26.8% dark matter and just 4.9% ordinary (luminous) matter. Thus the density of atoms is on the order of a single hydrogen atom for every four cubic meters of volume.

The properties of dark energy and dark matter are largely unknown, and could be uniformly distributed or organized in clumps like normal matter. However, it is believed that dark matter gravitates as ordinary matter does, and thus works to slow the expansion of the Universe. By contrast, dark energy accelerates its expansion.

Once again, this number is just a rough estimate. When used to estimate the total mass of the Universe, it often falls short of what other estimates predict. And in the end, what we see is just a smaller fraction of the whole.

We’ve got a many articles that are related to the amount of matter in the Universe here in Universe Today, like How Many Galaxies in the Universe, and How Many Stars are in the Milky Way?

NASA also has the following articles on the universe, like How many galaxies are there? and this article on the Stars in Our Galaxy.

We also have podcast episodes from Astronomy Cast on the subject of Galaxies and Variable Stars.

Galaxies Bring Dancing With the Stars to New Level

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What is small, mysterious, faint, in the process of losing mass, and can dance like crazy? Could it be Marie Osmond? Well, that might be the correct answer in this galaxy, but just on the outskirts of the Milky Way are small, mysterious galaxies called dwarf spheroidal galaxies, and a new study offers an explanation for the origin of these puzzling objects. But can they really dance? Yes, says lead author Elena D’Onghia of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

These dwarf spheroidal galaxies are small and very faint, containing few stars relative to their total mass. They appear to be made mostly of dark matter – a mysterious substance detectable only by its gravitational influence, which outweighs normal matter by a factor of five to one in the universe as a whole.

Astronomers have found it difficult to explain the origin of dwarf spheroidal galaxies. Previous theories require that dwarf spheroidals orbit near large galaxies like the Milky Way, but this does not explain how dwarfs that have been observed in the outskirts of the “Local Group” of galaxies could have formed.

“These systems are ‘elves’ of the early universe, and understanding how they formed is a principal goal of modern cosmology,” said D’Onghia.

This simulation demonstrates the resonant stripping process.  Stars of a dwarf galaxy (bottom) orbiting a larger system are stripped off by gravity.  Credit: CfA
This simulation demonstrates the resonant stripping process. Stars of a dwarf galaxy (bottom) orbiting a larger system are stripped off by gravity. Credit: CfA

D’Onghia and her colleagues used computer simulations to examine two scenarios for the formation of dwarf spheroidals: 1) an encounter between two dwarf galaxies far from giants like the Milky Way, with the dwarf spheroidal later accreted into the Milky Way, and 2) an encounter between a dwarf galaxy and the forming Milky Way in the early universe.

The team found that the galactic encounters excite a gravitational process which they term “resonant stripping,” leading to the removal of stars from the smaller dwarf over the course of the interaction and transforming it into a dwarf spheroidal.

“Like in a cosmic dance, the encounter triggers a gravitational resonance that strips stars and gas from the dwarf galaxy, producing long visible tails and bridges of stars,” explained D’Onghia.

“This mechanism explains the most important characteristic of dwarf spheroidals, which is that they are dark-matter dominated,” added co-author Gurtina Besla.

The long streams of stars pulled off by gravitational interactions should be detectable. For example, the recently discovered bridge of stars between Leo IV and Leo V, two nearby dwarf spheroidal galaxies, may have resulted from resonant stripping.

Source: Harvard Smithsonian CfA

Spitzer Finds a Cyclops Galaxy!

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Imagine peering through your telescope and having a wild creature with one Cyclops-like eye looking back at you! NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope saw just that when it located galaxy NGC 1097, about 50 million light-years away. It has long, spindly arms of stars, and its one “eye” at the center of the galaxy is actually a monstrous black hole surrounded by a ring of stars. Plus, this creature looks to be carrying a smaller blue galaxy in its arms!

The black hole is huge, about 100 million times the mass of our sun, and is feeding off gas and dust along with the occasional unlucky star. Our Milky Way’s central black hole is tame by comparison, with a mass of a few million suns.

“The fate of this black hole and others like it is an active area of research,” said George Helou, deputy director of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Some theories hold that the black hole might quiet down and eventually enter a more dormant state like our Milky Way black hole.”

The fuzzy blue dot to the left, which appears to fit snuggly between the arms, is a companion galaxy.

“The companion galaxy that looks as if it’s playing peek-a-boo through the larger galaxy could have plunged through, poking a hole,” said Helou. “But we don’t know this for sure. It could also just happen to be aligned with a gap in the arms.”

Other dots in the picture are either nearby stars in our galaxy, or distant galaxies.

The white ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy is causing the ring to light up with new stars.

“The ring itself is a fascinating object worthy of study because it is forming stars at a very high rate,” said Kartik Sheth, an astronomer at NASA’s Spitzer Science Center. Sheth and Helou are part of a team that made the observations.

In the Spitzer image, infrared light with shorter wavelengths is blue, while longer-wavelength light is red. The galaxy’s red spiral arms and the swirling spokes seen between the arms show dust heated by newborn stars. Older populations of stars scattered through the galaxy are blue.

This image was taken during Spitzer’s “cold mission,” which lasted more than five-and-a-half years. The telescope ran out of coolant needed to chill its infrared instruments on May 15, 2009. Two of its infrared channels will still work perfectly during the new “warm mission,” which is expected to begin in a week or so, once the observatory has been recalibrated and warms to its new temperature of around 30 Kelvin (about minus 406 degrees Fahrenheit).

Source: JPL

Ejected Black Holes Drag Clusters of Stars With Them

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The tight cluster of stars surrounding a supermassive black hole after it has been violently kicked out of a galaxy represents a new kind of astronomical object which may provide telltale clues to how the ejection event occurred. “Hypercompact stellar systems” result when a supermassive black hole is violently ejected from a galaxy, following a merger with another supermassive black hole. The evicted black hole rips stars from the galaxy as it is thrown out. The stars closest to the black hole move in tandem with the massive object and become a permanent record of the velocity at which the kick occurred.

“You can measure how big the kick was by measuring how fast the stars are moving around the black hole,” said David Merritt, professor of physics at the Rochester Institute of Technolyg. “Only stars orbiting faster than the kick velocity remain attached to the black hole after the kick. These stars carry with them a kind of fossil record of the kick, even after the black hole has slowed down. In principle, you can reconstruct the properties of the kick, which is nice because there would be no other way to do it.”

In a paper published in the July 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, Merritt and his colleagues discusses the theoretical properties of these objects and suggests that hundreds of these faint star clusters might be detected at optical wavelengths in our immediate cosmic environment. Some of these objects may already have been picked up in astronomical surveys. .

“Finding these objects would be like discovering DNA from a long-extinct species,” said team member Stefanie Komossa, from the Max-Planck-Institut for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

The astronomers say the best place to find hypercompact stellar systems is in cluster of galaxies like the nearby Coma and Virgo clusters. These dense regions of space contain thousands of galaxies that have been merging for a long time. Merging galaxies result in merging black holes, which is a prerequisite for the kicks.

“Even if the black hole gets kicked out of one galaxy, it’s still going to be gravitationally bound to the whole cluster of galaxies,” Merritt says. “The total gravity of all the galaxies is acting on that black hole. If it was ever produced, it’s still going to be there somewhere in that cluster.”

Merritt and his co-authors think that scientists may have already seen hypercompact stellar systems and not realized it. These objects would be easy to mistake for common star systems like globular clusters. The key signature making hypercompact stellar systems unique is a high internal velocity. This is detectable only by measuring the velocities of stars moving around the black hole, a difficult measurement that would require a long time exposure on a large telescope.

From time to time, a hypercompact stellar system will make its presence known in a much more dramatic way, when one of the stars is tidally disrupted by the supermassive black hole. In this case, gravity stretches the star and sucks it into the black hole. The star is torn apart, causing a beacon-like flare that signals a black hole. The possibility of detecting one of these “recoil flares” was first discussed in an August 2008 paper by co-authors Merritt and Komossa.

“The only contact of these floating black holes with the rest of the universe is through their armada of stars,” Merritt says, “with an occasional display of stellar fireworks to signal ‘here we are.’”

Source: Rochester Institute of Technology

Beautiful Chaos

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Can you imagine living in this region of space? Just think of the beautiful views you’d have in the sky – that is, if you survived the chaos as one galaxy is passing through the core of three other galaxies at ridiculous (ludicrous?) speeds (3.2 million km per hour / 2 million miles per hour) generating a shock wave of gas and X-rays.

This is Stephen’s Quintet, A compact group of galaxies, discovered about 130 years ago, located about 280 million light years from Earth. The curved, light blue ridge running down the center of the image shows X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The galaxy in the middle, NGC 7318b is passing through the core of the other galaxies at high speed and is thought to be causing the ridge of X-ray emission by generating a shock wave that heats the gas. The most prominent galaxy in front (NGC 7320) is actually far away from the other galaxies and is not part of the group.

(See the Chandra webpage for a roll-over labeled version)

Additional heating by supernova explosions and stellar winds has also probably taken place in Stephan’s Quintet. A larger halo of X-ray emission – not shown here – detected by ESA’s XMM-Newton could be evidence of shock-heating by previous collisions between galaxies in this group. Some of the X-ray emission is likely also caused by binary systems containing massive stars that are losing material to neutron stars or black holes.

Stephan’s Quintet provides a rare opportunity to observe a galaxy group in the process of evolving from an X-ray faint system dominated by spiral galaxies to a more developed system dominated by elliptical galaxies and bright X-ray emission. Being able to witness the dramatic effect of collisions in causing this evolution is important for increasing our understanding of the origins of the hot, X-ray bright halos of gas in groups of galaxies.

Source: Chandra

Why are Distant Galaxies Moving Away Faster?

Question: Why are more distant galaxies moving away faster?

Answer: As you know, the Universe is expanding after the Big Bang. That means that every part of the Universe was once crammed into a tiny spot smaller than a grain of sand. Then it began expanding, and here we are, 13.7 billion years later with a growing Universe.

The expansive force of dark energy is actually accelerating the expansion even faster. But we won’t bring that in to make things even more complex.

As we look out into the Universe, we see galaxies moving away from us faster and faster. The more distant a galaxy is, the more quickly it’s moving away.

To understand why this is happening, go and get a balloon (or blow one up in your mind). Once you’ve got it blown up a little, draw a bunch of dots on the surface of the balloon; some close and others much further away. Then blow up the balloon more and watch how the dots expand away from each other.

From the perspective of any one dot on the surface of the balloon, the nearby dots aren’t expanding away too quickly, maybe just a few centimeters. But the dots on the other side of the balloon are quite far away. It took the same amount of time for all the dots to change their positions, so the more distant dots appeared to be moving faster.

That’s how it works with the Universe. Because space itself is expanding, the more further a galaxy is, the faster it seems to be receding.

Thanks to Cassandra for the question.

Why are there Black Holes in the Middle of Galaxies?

Question: Why are Black Holes in the Middle of Galaxies?

Answer: The black holes you’re thinking of are known as supermassive black holes. Stellar mass black holes are created when a star at least 5 times larger than the Suns out of fuel and collapses in on itself forming a black hole. The supermassive black holes, on the other hand, can contain hundreds of millions of times the mass of a star like our Sun.

Astronomers are now fairly certain that these supermassive black holes are at the heart of almost every galaxy in the Universe. Furthermore, the mass of these black holes is somehow tied to the mass of the rest of the galaxy. They grown in tandem with each other.

When large quantities of material falls into the black hole, it chokes up, unable to get consumed all at once. This “accretion disk” begins to heat up and blaze brightly in many different wavelengths, including X-rays. When supermassive black holes are actively feeding, astronomers call these quasars.

So how do these black holes get there in the first place? Astronomers aren’t sure, but it could be that the dark matter halo that surrounds every galaxy serves to focus and concentrate material as the galaxy was first forming. Some of this material became the supermassive black hole, while the rest became the stars of the galaxy. It’s also possible that the black hole formed first, and collected the rest of the galaxy around it.

Astronomers just don’t know.

It’s a Bird! It’s Tinker Bell! It’sThree Galaxies!

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There once was a galaxy known as ESO 593-IG 008. It was thought to be a relatively mild-mannered galaxy, even though scientists believed it was a collision of two different galaxies; one a barred spiral and the other an irregular galaxy. But now, an international team of astronomers has discovered that it actually is a stunning rare case of three interacting galaxies, with the third galaxy forming stars at a frantic rate.

Using adaptive optics on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers were able to see through the all-pervasive dust clouds of the object that has been dubbed as “The Bird” because of its resemblance to a winged creature. With the adaptive optics of what’s called the NACO instrument, very fine details were able to be resolved.

“Examples of mergers of three galaxies of roughly similar sizes are rare,” says Petri Vaisanen, lead author of the paper which will appear in the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. “Only the near-infrared VLT observations made it possible to identify the triple merger nature of the system in this case.”

NACO is the combination of NAOS – Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System that is equipped with both visible and infrared sensors, and CONICA, a Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph.

The Anatomy of a Bird.  Image Credit:  ESO
Looking like a bird or a cosmic Tinker Bell, the NACO images show two unmistakable galaxies that form the body and wings of “The Bird.” Astronomers were surprised with the new images that identify a third, clearly separate component that forms the head. This irregular, yet fairly massive galaxy is forming stars violently, at a rate of nearly 200 solar masses per year. It appears to be the major source of infrared luminosity in the system, even though it is the smallest of the three galaxies. The other two galaxies appear to be at a quieter stage of their interaction-induced star formation history. The object is 650 million light years distant but it is quite large with the “wings” alone extending more than 100,000 light-years, or the size of our own Milky Way.

Subsequent optical spectroscopy with the new Southern African Large Telescope, and archive mid-infrared data from the NASA Spitzer space observatory, confirmed the separate nature of the ‘head’, but also added further surprises. The ‘head’ and major parts of the ‘Bird’ are moving apart at more than 400 km/s (1.4 million km/h). Observing such high velocities is very rare in merging galaxies.

“The Bird” belongs to the prestigious family of luminous infrared galaxies, with an infrared luminosity nearly one thousand billion times that of the Sun. This family of galaxies has long been thought to signpost important events in galaxy evolution, such as mergers of galaxies, which in turn trigger bursts of star formation, and may eventually lead to the formation of a single elliptical galaxy.

The galaxy is also designated as IRAS 19115-2124. The ESO is more formally known as the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.

Original News Source: ESO Press Release: