What Are The Biggest Mysteries in Astronomy?

Black Holes? Dark Energy? Dark Matter? Alien Life? What are the biggest mysteries that still exist out there for us to figure out?

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” These are the words of Albert Einstein. I assume he was talking about Minecraft, but I guess it applies to the Universe too.

There are many examples: astronomers try to discover the rate of the expansion of the Universe, and learn a dark energy is accelerating its expansion. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft finally images Saturn’s moon Iapetus, and finds a strange equatorial ridge – how the heck did that get there? Did the Celestials forget to trim it when it came out of the packaging?

There have always been, and, let’s go as far as to say that there always will be, mysteries in astronomy. Although the nature of the mysteries may change, the total number is always going up.

Hundreds of years ago, people wanted to know how the planets moved through sky (conservation of angular momentum), how old the Earth was (4.54 billion years), or what kept the Moon from flying off into space (gravity). Just a century ago, astronomers weren’t sure what galaxies were (islands of stars), or how the Sun generated energy (nuclear fusion). And just a few decades ago, we didn’t know what caused quasars (feeding supermassive black holes), or how old the Universe was (13.8 billion years). Each of these mysteries has been solved, or at least, we’ve a got a pretty good understanding of what’s going on.

Science continues to explore and seek answers to the mysteries we have, and as it does it opens up new brand doors. Fortunately for anyone who’s thinking of going into astronomy as a career, there are a handful of really compelling mysteries to explore right now:

Is the Universe finite or infinite? We can see light that left shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years in all directions. And the expansion of the Universe has carried these regions more than 45 billion light-years away from us. But the Universe is probably much larger than that, and may be even infinite.

Images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing a gravitational lensing effect. Credit: NASA/ESA.
Images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing a gravitational lensing effect. Credit: NASA/ESA.

What is dark matter? Thanks to gravitational lensing, astronomers can perceive vast halos of invisible material around all galaxies. But what is this stuff, and why doesn’t it interact with any other matter?

What is dark energy? When trying to discover the expansion rate of the Universe, astronomers discovered that the expansion is actually accelerating? Why is this happening? Is something causing this force, or do we just not understand gravity at the largest scales?

There are supermassive black holes at the heart of pretty much every galaxy. Did these supermassive black holes form first, and then the galaxies around them? Or was it the other way around?

The Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago, and the expansion of the Universe has continued ever since. But what came before the Big Bang? In fact, what even caused the Big Bang? Has it been Big Bangs over and over again?

The Universe 590 million years after the Big Bang. Credit: Alvaro Orsi, Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University.
The Universe 590 million years after the Big Bang. Credit: Alvaro Orsi, Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University.

Are we alone in the Universe? Is there life on any other world or star system? And is anyone out there we could talk to?

Shortly after the Big Bang, incomprehensible amounts of matter and antimatter annihilated each other. But for some reason, there was a slightly higher ratio of matter – and so we have a matter dominated Universe. Why?

Is this the only Universe? Is there a multiverse of universes out there? How do I get to the Whedonverse?

In the distant future, after all the stars are dead and gone, maybe protons themselves will decay and there will be nothing left but energy. Physicists haven’t been able to catch a proton decaying yet. Will the ever?

And these are just some of the big ones. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of unanswered questions. The more we learn, the more we discover how little we actually understand.

Whenever we do a video about concepts in astronomy where we have a basic understanding, like gravity, evolution, or the Big Bang, trolls show up and say that scientists are so arrogant. That they think they know everything. But scientists don’t know everything, and they’re willing to admit when something is a mystery. When the answer to the question is: I don’t know.

What’s your favorite unanswered question in space and astronomy? Give us your best mystery in the comments below.

New Analysis Sets a Space & Time Zone for Complex Life

If too close to an environment harboring complex life, a gamma ray burst could spell doom for that life. But could GRBs be the reason we haven’t yet found evidence of other civilizations in the cosmos? To help answer the big question of “where is everybody?” physicists from Spain and Israel have narrowed the time period and the regions of space in which complex life could persist with a low risk of extinction by a GRB.

GRBs are some of the most cataclysmic events in the Universe. Astrophysicists are astounded by their intensity, some of which can outshine the whole Universe for brief moments. So far, they have remained incredible far-off events. But in a new paper, physicists have weighed how GRBs could limit where and when life could persist and evolve, potentially into intelligent life.

In their paper, “On the role of GRBs on life extinctions in the Universe”, published in the journal Science, Dr. Piran from Hebrew University and Dr. Jimenez from University of Barcelona consider first what is known about gamma ray bursts. The metallicity of stars and galaxies as a whole are directly related to the frequency of GRBs. Metallicity is the abundance of elements beyond hydrogen and helium in the content of stars or whole galaxies. More metals reduce the frequency of GRBs. Galaxies that have a low metal content are prone to a higher frequency of GRBs. The researchers, referencing their previous work, state that observational data has shown that GRBs are not generally related to a galaxy’s star formation rate; forming stars, including massive ones is not the most significant factor for increased frequency of GRBs.

As fate would have it, we live in a high metal content galaxy – the Milky Way. Piran and Jimenez show that the frequency of GRBs in the Milky Way is lower based on the latest data available. That is the good news. More significant is the placement of a solar system within the Milky Way or any galaxy.

The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen in X-rays temporarily blinded Swift's X-ray Telescope on 21 June 2010. This image merges the X-rays (red to yellow) with the same view from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, which showed nothing extraordinary. Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler
The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen in X-rays temporarily blinded Swift’s X-ray Telescope on 21 June 2010. This image merges the X-rays (red to yellow) with the same view from Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, which showed nothing extraordinary. Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

The paper states that there is a 50% chance of a lethal GRB’s having occurred near Earth within the last 500 million years. If a stellar system is within 13,000 light years (4 kilo-parsecs) of the galactic center, the odds rise to 95%. Effectively, this makes the densest regions of all galaxies too prone to GRBs to permit complex life to persist.

The Earth lies at 8.3 kilo-parsecs (27,000 light years) from the galactic center and the astrophysicists’ work also concludes that the chances of a lethal GRB in a 500 million year span does not drop below 50% until beyond 10 kilo-parsecs (32,000 light years). So Earth’s odds have not been most favorable, but obviously adequate. Star systems further out from the center are safer places for life to progress and evolve. Only the outlying low star density regions of large galaxies keep life out of harm’s way of gamma ray bursts.

The paper continues by describing their assessment of the effect of GRBs throughout the Universe. They state that only approximately 10% of galaxies have environments conducive to life when GRB events are a concern. Based on previous work and new data, galaxies (their stars) had to reach a metallicity content of 30% of the Sun’s, and the galaxies needed to be at least 4 kilo-parsecs (13,000 light years) in diameter to lower the risk of lethal GRBs. Simple life could survive repeated GRBs. Evolving to higher life forms would be repeatedly set back by mass extinctions.

Piran’s and Jimenez’s work also reveals a relation to a cosmological constant. Further back in time, metallicity within stars was lower. Only after generations of star formation – billions of years – have heavier elements built up within galaxies. They conclude that complex life such as on Earth – from jelly fish to humans – could not have developed in the early Universe before Z > 0.5, a cosmological red-shift equal to ~5 billion years ago or longer ago. Analysis also shows that there is a 95% chance that Earth experienced a lethal GRB within the last 5 billion years.

The question of what effect a nearby GRB could have on life has been raised for decades. In 1974, Dr. Malvin Ruderman of Columbia University considered the consequences of a nearby supernova on the ozone layer of the Earth and on terrestrial life. His and subsequent work has determined that cosmic rays would lead to the depletion of the ozone layer, a doubling of the solar ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface, cooling of the Earth’s climate, and an increase in NOx and rainout that effects biological systems. Not a pretty picture. The loss of the ozone layer would lead to a domino effect of atmospheric changes and radiation exposure leading to the collapse of ecosystems. A GRB is considered the most likely cause of the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago; there remains considerable debate on the causes of this and several other mass extinction events in Earth’s history.

The paper focuses on what are deemed long GRBs – lGRBs – lasting several seconds in contrast to short GRBs which last only a second or less. Long GRBs are believed to be due to the collapse of massive stars such as seen in supernovas, while sGRBs are from the collision of neutron stars or black holes. There remains uncertainty as to the causes, but the longer GRBs release far greater amounts of energy and are most dangerous to ecosystems harboring complex life.

The paper narrows the time and space available for complex life to develop within our Universe. Over the age of the Universe, approximately 14 billion years, only the last 5 billion years have been conducive to the creation of complex life. Furthermore, only 10% of the galaxies within the last 5 billion years provided such environments. And within only larger galaxies, only the outlying areas provided the safe distances needed to evade lethal exposure to a gamma ray burst.

This work reveals how well our Solar System fits within the ideal conditions for permitting complex life to develop. We stand at a fairly good distance from the Milky Way’s galactic center. The age of our Solar System, at approximately 4.6 billion years, lies within the 5 billion year safe zone in time. However, for many other stellar systems, despite how many are now considered to exist throughout the Universe – 100s of billions in the Milky Way, trillions throughout the Universe – simple is probably a way of life due to GRBs. This work indicates that complex life, including intelligent life, is likely less common when just taking the effect of gamma ray bursts into consideration.


On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the Universe, Tsvi Piran, Raul Jimenez, Science, Nov 2014, pre-print

Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed?

One answer to the Fermi Paradox is the idea of the Great Filter; the possibility that something wipes out 100% of intelligent civilizations. That why we’ve never discovered any aliens… they’re all dead. Is that our future too?

In a previous episode, I presented the idea of the Fermi Paradox. If space is huge, like space huge, not aircraft carrier huge, and there are billions upon billions of stars, AND there seem to be lots of habitable planets around those stars, where are all the damn aliens?

There are plenty of theories about what might be the solution for the Fermi Paradox, like there aren’t a lot of aliens out there and we’re too far apart to bother with, or maybe they just don’t want to talk to us because of our meat cooties, or maybe we’re really in a cosmic zoo and if you break it, you bought it.

It’s possible that we’re the first intelligent civilization to exist in the entire Universe, but I’ve never been a fan of that idea. If we’re the best the universe can do in billions of years, I seriously need to make some heavy expectation adjustments to my view of everything.

There is still another theory, one that you might find troubling. It’s called the Great Filter, and it says that something prevents intelligent civilizations from ever forming, in a darkly mysterious Philip K Dick kind of way.

Consider the long series of steps that happened to get from the early Earth to where we are now: A planet with the right combination of atoms needed to have liquid water long enough for organic molecules to form, those molecules needed to somehow be able to reproduce, eventually becoming the first organisms, which became multicellular organisms, then learning to reproduce sexually, evolving tool use, and eventually becoming intelligent life, and all the while managing to survive a planetary extinction or two. And then, at some point in the future, this intelligent life goes on to colonize an entire nearby galaxy.

Since humanity has passed all those previous steps, we know they’re not impossible. Maybe really really improbable, but not impossible. As we imagine the future, there’s nothing in the laws of physics that’ll stop us from building machines that can help us colonize the entire galaxy. Pretty machines with blinking lights, possibly incorporating meat parts from future generations of humans. If we can do it, any race could do it.

If the universe has been around for 14 billion years, and we’ve done it in a fraction of that, there’s been plenty of time for this to have been done. And yet, still no aliens. So maybe the Great Filter is still waiting for us. No matter how hard we try to extend beyond our Solar System, something will stop us.

This image shows the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image featuring additional observation time. The new data have revealed for the first time a population of distant galaxies at redshifts between 9 and 12, including the most distant object observed to date. These galaxies will require confirmation using spectroscopy by the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope before they are considered to be fully confirmed.
There are so many places where aliens could have evolved. So where are they? Credit: NASA/HST

So what could the Great Filter be? There are lots of ideas. Maybe all civilizations discover the most horrible of weapons and eventually destroy themselves. They could develop virtual reality technology and choose to spend their future in a simulated reality. They could create an exotic type of matter that destroys their home planet. Perhaps they create robotic servants who inevitably overthrow their masters in a planetary robotalypse. Perhaps someone creates a super plague that wipes out all life, the civilization ruins their environment and its ability to support life by filling their oceans with plastic and their atmosphere with CO2 until their planet becomes a pressure cooker. Or maybe they just watch too much reality tv and just get too dumb to put food in their own mouths and die of stupid.

Whatever the cause is, here’s the haunting idea behind it… Whatever this Great Filter is, it must hit 100% of intelligent civilizations. Because if even 1% of aliens are able to avoid it, they’d go on to colonize the galaxy. And still even to this day, yes, we have no aliens.

There could be some high probability absolute devastation event in our future, which will happen just before we become a space-faring civilization…. And there’s no way we can predict or prevent it. The idea that all advanced civilizations are doomed is unsettling.

Here’s hoping that the Great Filter is wrong. Either we’re the first advanced civilization in the Milky Way, or perhaps we’ll figure it out, and avoid the catastrophe that killed off all the other aliens in the galaxy.

So what do you think? What’s it gonna be? What will wipe us out? Tell us in the comments below.