In 1929 Edwin Hubble published the first solid evidence that the universe is expanding. Drawing upon data from Vesto Slipher and Henrietta Leavitt, Hubble demonstrated a correlation between galactic distance and redshift. The more distant a galaxy was, the more its light appeared shifted to the red end of the spectrum. We now know this is due to cosmic expansion. Space itself is expanding, which makes distant galaxies appear to recede away from us. The rate of this expansion is known as the Hubble parameter, and while we have a good idea of its value, there is still a bit of tension between different results.Continue reading “A New Way to Measure the Expansion Rate of the Universe: Redshift Drift”
We can gaze out into regions in our neighbourhood of the Milky Way and find orgies of star birth. The closest region is in the Orion nebula, where astronomers have identified more than 700 young stars. They range from only 100,000 years—mere infancy for a star—to over a million years.
But we’re more than 13 billion years after the Big Bang now. What was star formation like way back when, when conditions in the Universe were so different?Continue reading “JWST Shows How the Early Universe Was Furiously Forming Stars”
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was designed to probe the mysteries of the Universe, not the least of which is what the first galaxies looked like. These galaxies formed during the Epoch of Reionization (aka. “Cosmic Dawn”), which lasted from about 100 to 500 million years after the Big Bang. By observing these galaxies and comparing them to ones that see closer to our own today, astronomers hope to test the laws of physics on the grandest of scales and what role (if any) Dark Matter and Dark Energy have played.
Unfortunately, early into its campaign, the JWST detected galaxies from this period so massive that they were inconsistent with our understanding of how the Universe formed. The most widely-accepted theory for how this all fits together is known as the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) cosmological model, which best describes the structure and evolution of the Universe. According to the latest results from the Cosmic Dawn Center, these galaxies may be even more massive than previously thought, further challenging our understanding of the cosmos.Continue reading “Remember Those Impossibly Massive Galaxies? They May Be Even More Massive”
One of the James Webb Space Telescope’s science goals is to help cosmologists understand how the first galaxies and galaxy clusters formed in the early Universe. New images from the telescope show just that. Astronomers say the seven galaxies shown in this new JWST images are the earliest yet to be spectroscopically confirmed as part of a developing galaxy cluster. These galaxies are about 13 billion light-years away, meaning JWST is seeing them at about 95% of the age of the observable Universe.Continue reading “JWST Sees a Galaxy Cluster Coming Together in the Early Universe”
Since it launched on December 25th, 2021 (quite the Christmas present!), the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has taken the sharpest and most detailed images of the Universe, surpassing even its predecessor, the venerable Hubble Space Telescope! But what is especially exciting are the kinds of observations we can look forward to, where the JWST will use its advanced capabilities to address some of the most pressing cosmological mysteries. For instance, there’s the problem presented by high-redshift supermassive black holes (SMBHs) or brightly-shining quasars that existed during the first billion years of the Universe.
To date, astronomers have not been able to determine how SMBHs could have formed so soon after the Big Bang. Part of the problem has been that, until recently, stars in host galaxies with redshift values of Z>2 (within 10.324 billion light-years) have been elusive. But thanks to the JWST, an international team of astronomers recently observed stars in quasars at Z>6 (within 12.716 billion light-years) for the first time. Their observations could finally allow astronomers to assess the processes in early quasars that governed the formation and evolution of the first SMBHs.Continue reading “For the First Time, Astronomers Spot Stars in Galaxies that Existed Just 1 Billion Years After the Big Bang”
Since time immemorial, philosophers and scholars have contemplated the beginning of time and even tried to determine when all things began. It’s only been in the age of modern astronomy that we’ve come close to answering that question with a fair degree of certainty. According to the most widely-accepted cosmological models, the Universe began with the Bang Bang roughly 13.8 billion years ago.
Even so, astronomers are still uncertain about what the early Universe looked like since this period coincided with the cosmic “Dark Ages.” Therefore, astronomers keep pushing the limits of their instruments to see when the earliest galaxies formed. Thanks to new research by an international team of astronomers, the oldest and most distant galaxy observed in our Universe to date (GN-z11) has been identified!Continue reading “Astronomers set a new Record and Find the Farthest Galaxy. Its Light Took 13.4 Billion Years to Reach us”
The Universe is big, but how big is it? That all depends on whether the Universe is finite or infinite. Even the word “big” is tough to get clear. Are we talking about the size of the Universe we can see, or the Universe’s actual size right now?
The Universe is big, but how big is it? And what the heck kind of question is that? Are elephants big? Trucks? Dinosaurs? Cheese? Is cheese big? How big is cheese? How big is big?
The word “big” is tough to get clear. Are we talking about the size of the Universe we can see, or the Universe’s actual size right now? This becomes even more complicated when we are trying to work under assumptions of either the Universe is finite or the Universe is infinite.
One difficulty with talking about the size, is that the Universe is expanding. Light takes time to travel from distant galaxies, and while that light travels, the Universe continues to expand. So our problem with talking about how big it is, is that there is no single meaning to distance when it comes to the universe. For this reason, astronomers usually don’t worry about the distance to galaxies at all, and instead focus on redshift, which is measured by z. The bigger the z, the more redshift, and the more distant the galaxy.
As an example, consider one of the most distant galaxies we’ve observed, which has a redshift of 7.5. Using this, we can determine distance by calculating how long the light has traveled to reach us. With a redshift of 7.5, that comes out to be about 13 billion years. You might think that means it’s 13 billion light years away, but 13 billion years ago the universe was smaller, so it was actually closer at the time the light left that galaxy. Using this, if you calculate that distance, it was only a short 3.4 billion light years away.
Now the galaxy is much farther than that. After the light left the galaxy, the galaxy continued to move away from us. It is now about 29 billion light years away. Which is definitely more than 13, and quite a bit more than its original 3.4.
Usually it is this big distance that people mean when they ask for the size of the universe. This is known as the co-moving distance. Of course, we can only see so far. So, how far can we see? The most distant light we are able to observe is from the cosmic microwave background, which has a redshift of about z = 1,000.
This means the co-moving distance of the cosmic background is about 46 billion light years. Sticking us at the center of a massive sphere, the currently observable universe has a diameter of about 92 billion light years. Even with this observed distance, we know that it extends much further than that. If what we could see was all there is, we would see galaxies tend to gravitate towards us, which we don’t observe.
In fact we don’t see any kind of galaxy clumping to a particular point at all. So as far as we know the universe could extend forever. It could be even stranger than that. Despite some media controversy, if the BICEP2 detection of early inflation is correct, it is likely the Universe undergoes a type of inflation with the intimidating moniker of “eternal inflation”. If it is the case, our observable universe is merely one bubble within an endless sea of other bubble universes. This is otherwise referred to as… the multiverse.
So, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space”
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