What’s Causing The Universe To Expand?

We’ve all heard that the Universe is expanding, but why is it expanding? What’s the force pushing everything outwards?

If still you don’t know that we live in an expanding Universe, then I’m clearly not doing my job.

And so once more, with feeling… the Universe is expanding. But that certainly doesn’t answer all the questions that go along with the it.

Like what’s the Universe expanding into? Which we did in another video, which I’ll list at the end of this episode. You might also want to know why is the Universe expanding? What’s making this happen? Did it give up its gym membership? Did it sign up for the gallon of ice cream of the month club? Has it completely embraced the blerch?

Edwin Hubble, the astronomer made famous by being named after a space telescope, provided the definitive evidence that the Universe was expanding. Observing distant galaxies, he observed they were fleeing outwards, in fact he was able to come up with calculations to show just how fast they were moving away from us.

Or to be more precise, he was able to show how fast all the galaxies are moving away from each other. Which was your question! Just like a minute ago! See you’re just as smart as Hubble!

So up until about 15 years ago, the only answer was momentum. The idea was that the Universe received all the energy it needed for its expansion in the first few moments after the Big Bang.

Imagine the beginning of the Universe, BOOM, like an explosion from a gun. And all the rest of the expansion is the Universe coasting outwards. For the longest time, astronomers were trying to figure out what this momentum would mean for the future of the Universe.

Dark Energy
The Hubble Space Telescope image of the inner regions of the lensing cluster Abell 1689 that is 2.2 billion light?years away. Light from distant background galaxies is bent by the concentrated dark matter in the cluster (shown in the blue overlay) to produce the plethora of arcs and arclets that were in turn used to constrain dark energy. Image courtesy of NASA?ESA, Jullo (JPL), Natarajan (Yale), Kneib (LAM)

Would the mutual gravity of all the objects in the Universe cause it to slow to a halt at some point in the distant future, or maybe even collapse in on itself, leading to a Big Crunch? Or just clump up in piles and stay on the couch all summer because it’s maybe a little lazy and isn’t ready to start going back to the gym yet?

In 1999, astronomers discovered something completely unexpected… dark energy. As they were doing their observations to figure out exactly how the Universe would coast to a stop, they discovered that it’s actually speeding up. It’s as if that bullet is actually a rocket and it’s accelerating.

Now it appears that the Universe will not only expand forever, but the speed of its expansion will continue to accelerate faster and faster. So what’s causing this expansion? Currently, we believe it’s mostly momentum left over from the Big Bang, and the force of dark energy will be accelerating this expansion. Forever.

How do you feel about a rapidly accelerating expanding Universe? Tell us in the comments below.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Where Have All the Pulsars Gone? The Mystery at the Center of Our Galaxy

The galactic center is a happening place, with lots of gas, dust, stars, and surprising binary stars orbiting a supermassive black hole about three million times the size of our sun. With so many stars, astronomers estimate that there should be hundreds of dead ones. But to date, scientists have found only a single young pulsar at the galactic center where there should be as many as 50.

The question thus arises: where are all those rapidly spinning, dense stellar corpses known as pulsars? Joseph Bramante of Notre Dame University and astrophysicist Tim Linden of the University of Chicago have a possible solution to this missing-pulsar problem, which they describe in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Maybe those pulsars are absent because dark matter, which is plentiful in the galactic center, gloms onto the pulsars, accumulating until the pulsars become so dense they collapse into a black hole. Basically, they disappeared into the fabric of space and time by becoming so massive that they punched a hole right through it.

Dark matter, as you may know, is the theoretical mass that astrophysicists believe fills roughly a quarter of our universe. Alas, it is invisible and undetectable by conventional means, making its presence known only in how its gravitational pull interacts with other stellar objects.

One of the more popular candidates for dark matter is Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, otherwise known as WIMPs. Underground detectors are currently hunting for WIMPs and debate has raged over whether gamma rays streaming from the galactic center come from WIMPs annihilating one another.

In general, any particle and its antimatter partner will annihilate each other in a flurry of energy. But WIMPs don’t have an antimatter counterpart. Instead, they’re thought to be their own antiparticles, meaning that one WIMP can annihilate another.

But over the last few years, physicists have considered another class of dark matter called asymmetric dark matter. Unlike WIMPs, this type of dark matter does have an antimatter counterpart.

Numerical simulation of the density of matter when the universe was one billion years old. Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRIment (CIBER) Credit: Caltech/Jamie Bock
 Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRIment (CIBER) simulation of the density of matter when the universe was one billion years old, as produced by large-scale structures from dark matter. Credit: Caltech/Jamie Bock

Asymmetric dark matter appeals to physicists because it’s intrinsically linked to the imbalance of matter and antimatter. Basically, there’s a lot more matter in the universe than antimatter – which is good considering anything less than an imbalance would lead to our annihilation. Likewise, according to the theory, there’s much more dark matter than anti-dark-matter.

Physicists think that in the beginning, the Big Bang should’ve created as much matter as antimatter, but something altered this balance. No one’s sure what this mechanism was, but it might have triggered an imbalance in dark matter as well – hence it is “asymmetric”.

Dark matter is concentrated at the galactic center, and if it’s asymmetric, then it could collect at the center of pulsars, pulled in by their extremely strong gravity. Eventually, the pulsar would accumulate so much mass from dark matter that it would collapse into a black hole.

The idea that dark matter can cause pulsars to implode isn’t new.  But the new research is the first to apply this possibility to the missing-pulsar problem.

If the hypothesis is correct, then pulsars around the galactic center could only get so old before grabbing so much dark matter that they turn into black holes. Because the density of dark matter drops the farther you go from the center, the researchers predict that the maximum age of pulsars will increase with distance from the center. Observing this distinct pattern would be strong evidence that dark matter is not only causing pulsars to implode, but also that it’s asymmetric.

“The most exciting part about this is just from looking at pulsars, you can perhaps say what dark matter is made of,” Bramante said. Measuring this pattern would also help physicists narrow down the mass of the dark matter particle.

    Artist's illustration of a pulsar that was found to be an ultraluminous X-ray source. Credit: NASA, Caltech-JPL
Artist’s illustration of a pulsar that was found to be an ultraluminous X-ray source.
Credit: NASA, Caltech-JPL

But as Bramante admits, it won’t be easy to detect this signature. Astronomers will need to collect much more data about the galactic center’s pulsars by searching for radio signals, he claims. The hope is that as astronomers explore the galactic center with a wider range of radio frequencies, they will uncover more pulsars.

But of course, the idea that dark matter is behind the missing pulsar problem is still highly speculative, and the likelihood of it is being called into question.

“I think it’s unlikely—or at least it is too early to say anything definitive,” said Zurek, who was one of the first to revive the notion of asymmetric dark matter in 2009. The tricky part is being able to know for sure that any measurable pattern in the pulsar population is due to dark-matter-induced collapse and not something else.

Even if astronomers find this pulsar signature, it’s still far from being definitive evidence for asymmetric dark matter. As Kathryn Zurek of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory explained: “Realistically, when dark matter is detected, we are going to need multiple, complementary probes to begin to be convinced that we have a handle on the theory of dark matter.”

And asymmetric dark matter may not have anything to do with the missing pulsar problem at all. The problem is relatively new, so astronomers may find more plausible, conventional explanations.

“I’d say give them some time and maybe they come up with some competing explanation that’s more fleshed out,” Bramante said.

Nevertheless, the idea is worth pursuing, says Haibo Yu of the University of California, Riverside. If anything, this analysis is a good example of how scientists can understand dark matter by exploring how it may influence astrophysical objects. “This tells us there are ways to explore dark matter that we’ve never thought of before,” he said. “We should have an open mind to see all possible effects that dark matter can have.”

There’s one other way to determine if dark matter can cause pulsars to implode: To catch them in the act. No one knows what a collapsing pulsar might look like. It might even blow up.

“While the idea of an explosion is really fun to think about, what would be even cooler is if it didn’t explode when it collapsed,” Bramante said. A pulsar emits a powerful beam of radiation, and as it spins, it appears to blink like a lighthouse with a frequency as high as several hundred times per second. As it implodes into a black hole, its gravity gets stronger, increasingly warping the surrounding space and time.

Studying this scenario would be a great way to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Bramante says. According to theory, the pulse rate would get slower and slower until the time between pulses becomes infinitely long. At that point, the pulses would stop entirely and the pulsar would be no more.

Further Reading: APS Physics, WIRED

Higgs Boson Physicists Receive 2013 Nobel Prize

That was fast! Just one year after a Higgs Boson-like particle was found at the Large Hadron Collider, the two physicists who first proposed its existence have received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. François Englert (of the former Free University of Brussels in Belgium) and Peter W. Higgs (at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom) received the prize officially this morning (Oct. 8.)

The Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism was first described in two independent papers by these physicists in 1964, and is believed to be responsible for the amount of matter a particle contains. Higgs himself said this mechanism would be visible in a massive boson (or subatomic particle), later called the Higgs boson. Check out more information on what the particle means at this past Universe Today article by editor Nancy Atikinson.

“The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed. According to the Standard Model, everything, from flowers and people to stars and planets, consists of just a few building blocks: matter particles. These particles are governed by forces mediated by force particles that make sure everything works as it should,”  the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

The Standard Model describes the interactions of fundamental particles. The W boson, the carrier of the electroweak force, has a mass that is fundamentally relevant for many predictions, from the energy emitted by our sun to the mass of the elusive Higgs boson. Credit: Fermilab
The Standard Model describes the interactions of fundamental particles. The W boson, the carrier of the electroweak force, has a mass that is fundamentally relevant for many predictions, from the energy emitted by our sun to the mass of the elusive Higgs boson. Credit: Fermilab

“The entire Standard Model also rests on the existence of a special kind of particle: the Higgs particle. This particle originates from an invisible field that fills up all space. Even when the universe seems empty this field is there. Without it, we would not exist, because it is from contact with the field that particles acquire mass. The theory proposed by Englert and Higgs describes this process.”

A very thrilled CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) noted that the Standard Model theory has been “remarkably successful”, and passed several key tests before the particle was unveiled last year in ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider.

Dark matter in the Bullet Cluster.  Otherwise invisible to telescopic views, the dark matter was mapped by observations of gravitational lensing of background galaxies. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/ M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/ D.Clowe et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;
Dark matter in the Bullet Cluster. Otherwise invisible to telescopic views, the dark matter was mapped by observations of gravitational lensing of background galaxies. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/ M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/ D.Clowe et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;

“The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year, which validates the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world,” stated CERN director General Rolf Heuer.

CERN added that the discovery last year was exciting, but the Higgs boson only explains only the matter that we can see. CERN is among the organizations on the hunt for dark matter and energy, forms that can’t be sensed with conventional observatories but can be seen through their effects — such as gravitational lensing.

Sources: CERN, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Subatomic Particles

Fine Structure Constant

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Not long ago, scientists believed that the smallest part of matter was the atom; the indivisible, indestructible, base unit of all things. However, it was not long before scientists began to encounter problems with this model, problems arising out of the study of radiation, the laws of thermodynamics, and electrical charges. All of these problems forced them to reconsider their previous assumptions about the atom being the smallest unit of matter and to postulate that atoms themselves were made up of a variety of particles, each of which had a particular charge, function, or “flavor”. These they began to refer to as Subatomic Particles, which are now believed to be the smallest units of matter, ones that composenucleons and atoms.

Whereas protons, neutrons and electrons have always been considered to be the fundamental particles of an atom, recent discoveries using atomic accelerators have shown that there are actually twelve different kinds of elementary subatomic particles, and that protons and neutrons are actually made up of smaller subatomic particles. These twelve particles are divided into two categories, known as Leptons and Quarks. There are six different kinds, or “flavors”, of quarks (named because of their unusual behavior). These include up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom quark, each of which possesses a charge that is expressed as a fraction (+2/3 for up, top and charm,-1/3 for down, bottom and strange) and have variable masses. There are also six different types of Leptons, which include Electrons, Muons, Taus, Electron Neutrinos, Muon Neutrinos, and Tau Neutrinos. Whereas electrons and Muons both have a negative charge of -1 (Muons having greater mass), Neutrinos have no charge and are extremely difficult to detect.

In addition to elementary particles, composite particles are another category of subatomic particles. Whereas elementary particles are not made up of other particles, composite particlesare bound states of two or more elementary particles, such as protons or atomic nuclei. For example, a proton is made of two Up quarks and one Down quark, while the atomic nucleus of helium-4 is composed of two protons and two neutrons.In addition, there are also the subatomic particles that fall under the heading of Gauge Bosons, which were identified using the same methods as Leptons and Quarks. These are classified as “force carriers”, i.e. particles that act as carriers for the fundamental forces of nature. These include photons that are associated with electromagnetism, gravitons that are associated with gravity, the three W and Z bosons of weak nuclear forces, and the eight gluons of strong nuclear forces. Scientists also predict the existence of several more, what they refer to as “hypothetical” particles, so the list is expected to grow.

Today, there are literally hundreds of known subatomic particles, most of which were either the result of cosmic rays interacting with matter or particle accelerator experiments.

We have written many articles about the subatomic particles for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the atomic nucleus, and here’s an article about the atomic theory.

If you’d like more info on the Atom, check out the Background on Atoms, and here’s a link to the NASA’s Understanding the Atom Page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Composition of the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subatomic_particle
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucleon
http://www.school-for-champions.com/science/subatomic.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gauge_boson
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_particles

What are Photons

Faraday's Constant

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When we think about light we don’t really think about what it is made of. This was actually the subject one of the most important arguments in physics. For the longest time physicists and scientist tried to determine if light was a wave or a particle. There were the physicists of the eighteenth century who strongly believed that light was made of basic units , but certain properties like refraction caused light to be reclassified as a wave. It would take no less than Einstein to resolve the issue. Thanks to him and the work of other renowned physicists we know more about what are photons.

To put it simply photons are the fundamental particle of light. They have a unique property in that they are both a particle and a wave. This is what allows photons unique properties like refraction and diffusion. However light particles are not quite the same as other elementary particles. They have interesting characteristics that are not commonly observed. First, as of right now physicists theorize that photons have no mass. They have some characteristics of particles like angular momentum but their frequency is independent of the influence of mass They also don’t carry a charge.

Photons are basically the most visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This was one of the major breakthroughs Einstein and the father of quantum physics, Planck made about the nature of light. This link is what is behind the photoelectric effect that makes solar power possible.Because light is another form of energy it can be transferred or converted into other types. In the case of the photoelectric effect the energy of light photons is transferred through the photons bumping into the atoms of a giving material. This causes the atom that is hit to lose electrons and thus make electricity.

As mentioned before photons played a key role in the founding of quantum physics. The study of the photons properties opened up a whole new class of fundamental particles called quantum particles. Thanks to photons we know that all quantum particles have both the properties of waves and particles. We also know that energy can be discretely measured on a quantum scale.

Photons also played a big role in Einstein’s theory of relativity. without the photon we would not understand the importance of the speed of light and with it the understanding of the interaction of time and space that it produced. We now know that the speed of light is an absolute that can’t be broken by natural means as it would needs an infinite amount of energy something that is not possible in our universe. So without the photon we would not have the knowledge about our universe that we now possess.

We have written many articles about photons for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how the sun shines, and here’s an article about why stars shine.

If you’d like more info on Photons, check out the Mass of the Photon. And here’s a link to an article about How Gravity Affects Photons.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

Source:
Wikipedia

What Is An Electron

Faraday's Constant

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What is an electron? Easily put, an electron is a subatomic particle that carries a negative electric charge. There are no known components, so it is believed to be an elementary particle(basic building block of the universe). The mass of an electron is 1/1836 of its proton. Electrons have an antiparticle called a positron. Positrons are identical to electrons except that all of its properties are the exact opposite. When electrons and positrons collide, they can be destroyed and will produce a pair (or more) of gamma ray photons. Electrons have gravitational, electromagnetic, and weak interactions.

In 1913, Niels Bohr postulated that electrons resided in quantized energy states, with the energy determined by the spin(angular momentum)of the electron’s orbits and that the electrons could move between these orbits by the emission or absorption of photons. These orbits explained the spectral lines of the hydrogen atom. The Bohr model failed to account for the relative intensities of the spectral lines and it was unsuccessful in explaining the spectra of more complex atom. Gilbert Lewis proposed in 1916 that a ‘covalent bond’ between two atoms is maintained by a pair of shared electrons. In 1919, Irving Langmuir improved on Lewis’ static model and suggested that all electrons were distributed in successive “concentric(nearly) spherical shells, all of equal thickness”. The shells were divided into a number of cells containing one pair of electrons. This model was able to qualitatively explain the chemical properties of all elements in the periodic table.

The invariant mass of an electron is 9.109×10-31 or 5.489×10-4 of the atomic mass unit. According to Einstein’s principle of mass-energy equivalence, this mass corresponds to a rest energy of .511MeV. Electrons have an electric charge of -1.602×10 coulomb. This a standard unit of charge for subatomic particles. The electron charge is identical to the charge of a proton. In addition to spin, the electron has an intrinsic magnetic moment along its spin axis. It is approximately equal to one Bohr magneton. The orientation of the spin with respect to the momentum of the electron defines the property of elementary particles known as helicity. Observing a single electron shows the upper limit of the particle’s radius is 10-22 meters. Some elementary particles decay into less massive particles. But an electron is thought to be stable on the grounds that it is the least massive particle with non-zero electric charge.

Understanding what is an electron is to begin to understand the basic building blocks of the universe. A very elementary understanding, but a building block to great scientific thought.

We have written many articles about the electron for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Electron Cloud Model, and here’s an article about the charge of electron.

If you’d like more info on the Electron, check out the History of the Electron Page, and here’s a link to the article about Killer Electrons.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Composition of the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

States of Matter

Solid, liquid, gas … those are the states of matter we’re thoroughly familiar with, but what makes for a state of matter? And are there other states of matter?

Since people first made distinctions between them, the states of matter were defined by how the matter behaved, in bulk; so a solid had a fixed shape (and volume), a liquid a fixed volume (but changed shape to fit the container it was in), and a gas expanded to fill its container. Once we realized that matter is made up of atoms (and molecules), the states of matter were distinguished by how the molecules (or atoms, in an element) behaved: in solids they are both close by and in a fixed arrangement (e.g. in crystals), in liquids close by but the arrangement is not fixed, and in gases not close by (so no particular arrangement).

But what about plasma? Sorta like a gas – so as it fills any container it’s in, it’s a gas – but not (the ions and electrons interact in completely different ways, in a plasma, than molecules (or atoms) do in a solid, liquid, or gas). Hence, plasma is the fourth state of matter.

Things got a bit more complicated as scientists studied matter more carefully.

For example, if you heat water in a strong, but transparent, container, above a certain temperature (and pressure) – called the critical temperature (critical pressure) – the liquid and gas states become one … the water is now a supercritical fluid (you may have seen this demonstrated, in a chemistry class perhaps, though likely not with water!).

Then there’s the distinction between crystals (crystalline state) and glasses (glassy state); both seem very solid, but the arrangement of molecules in a glass is more like that of molecules in a liquid than those in a crystal … and glasses can flow, just like liquids, if left for a long enough time.

Is there a ‘fifth state of matter’? Yes! A Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) … which is like a gas, except that the constituent atoms are all (or mostly) in the lowest possible quantum state … so a BEC has bulk properties quite unlike those of any other state of matter (quantum behavior become macroscopic).

In astrophysics, there are quite a few exotic states of matter; for example, in white dwarf stars matter is prevented from further (gravitational) collapse by electron degeneracy pressure; the same sort of thing happens in neutron stars, except that its neutron degeneracy pressure (there may also be an even more extreme state of matter, held up by quark degeneracy pressure!). There’s also a counterpart to ordinary plasmas: quark-gluon plasma (in an ordinary plasma made of hydrogen the atoms are broken into electrons and protons; in a quark-gluon plasma protons and neutrons ‘melt’ into their constituent quarks and gluons).

Are there related Universe Today stories? Sure! For example: Forget Neutron Stars, Quark Stars May Be the Densest Bodies in the Universe, Schwarzschild Radius, and Next Generation Magnetoplasma Rocket Could be Tested on Space Station.

States of matter, including some exotic ones, is something you’ll find discussed in Astronomy Cast; for example this Questions Show.

Sources:
Wikipedia
Purdue University
New York University
Wikipedia: Bose-Einstein Condensate

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.