The Most Distant Massive Galaxy Observed to Date Provides Insight into the Early Universe

In their pursuit of learning how our Universe came to be, scientists have probed very deep into space (and hence, very far back in time). Ultimately, their goal is to determine when the first galaxies in our Universe formed and what effect they had on cosmic evolution. Recent efforts to locate these earliest formations have probed to distances of up to 13 billion light-years from Earth – i.e. about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

From this, scientist are now able to study how early galaxies affected matter around them – in particular, the reionization of neutral atoms. Unfortunately, most early galaxies are very faint, which makes studying their interiors difficult. But thanks to a recent survey conducted by an international team of astronomers, a more luminous, massive galaxy was spotted that could provide a clear look at how early galaxies led to reionization.

The study which details their findings, titled “ISM Properties of a Massive Dusty Star-forming Galaxy Discovered at z ~ 7“, was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy  in Bonn, Germany, the team relied on data from the South Pole Telescope (SPT)-SZ survey and ALMA to spot a galaxy that existed 13 billion years ago (just 800 million years after the Big Bang).

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

In accordance with Big Bang model of cosmology, reionization refers to the process that took place after the period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where 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.

Just prior to this period, the “Recombination” occurred, where hydrogen and helium atoms began to form. Initially ionized (with no electrons bound to their nuclei) these molecules gradually captured ions as the Universe cooled, becoming neutral. During the period that followed – i.e. between 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang – the large-scale structure of the Universe began to form.

Intrinsic to this was the process of reionization, where the first stars and quasars formed and their radiation reionized the surrounding Universe. It is therefore clear why astronomers want to probe this era of the Universe. By observing the first stars and galaxies, and what effect they had on the cosmos, astronomers will get a clearer picture of how this early period led to the Universe as we know it today.

Luckily for the research team, the massive, star-forming galaxies of this period are known to contain a great deal of dust. While very faint in the optical band, these galaxies emit strong radiation at submillimeter wavelengths, which makes them detectable using today’s advanced telescopes – including the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), and Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, Strandet and Weiss relied on data from the SPT to detect a series of dusty galaxies from the early Universe. As Maria Strandet and Axel Weiss of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (and the lead author and co-authors on the study, respectively) told Universe Today via email:

“We have used light of about 1 mm wavelength, which can be observed by mm telescopes like SPT, APEX or ALMA. At this wavelength the photons are produced by the thermal radiation of dust. The beauty of using this long wavelength is, that for a large redshift range (look back time), the dimming of galaxies [caused] by increasing distance is compensated by the redshift – so the observed intensity is independent of the redshift. This is because, for higher redshift galaxies, one is looking at intrinsically shorter wavelengths (by (1+z)) where the radiation is stronger for a thermal spectrum like the dust spectrum.”

This was followed by data from ALMA, which the team used to determine the distance of the galaxies by looking at the redshifted wavelength of carbon monoxide molecules in their interstellar mediums (ISM). From all the data they collected, they were able to constrain the properties of one of these galaxies – SPT0311-58 – by observing its spectral lines. In so doing, they determined that this galaxy existed just 760 million years after the Big Bang.

“Since the signal strength at 1mm is independent of the redshift (look back time), we do not have an a priori clue if an object is relatively near (in the cosmological sense) or at the epoch of reionization,” they said. “That is why we undertook a large survey to determine the redshifts via the emission of molecular lines using ALMA. SPT0311-58 turns out to be the highest redshift object discovered in this survey and in fact the most distant massive dusty star-forming galaxy so far discovered.”

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

From their observations, they also determined that SPT0311-58 has a mass of about 330 billion Solar-masses, which is about 66 times as much as the Milky Way Galaxy (which has about 5 billion Solar-masses). They also estimated that it is forming new stars at a rate of several thousand per year, which could as be the case for neighboring galaxies that are dated to this period.

This rare and distant object is one of the best candidates yet for studying what the early Universe looked like and how it has evolved since. This in turn will allow astronomers and cosmologists to test the theoretical basis for the Big Bang Theory. As Strandet and Weiss told Universe Today about their discovery:

“These objects are important to understanding the evolution of galaxies as a whole since the large amounts of dust already present in this source, only 760 million years after the Big Bang, means that it is an extremely massive object. The mere fact that such massive galaxies already existed when the Universe was still so young puts strong constraints on our understanding of galaxy mass buildup. Furthermore the dust needs to form in a very short time, which gives additional insights on the dust production from the first stellar population.”

The ability to look deeper into space, and farther back in time, has led to many surprising discoveries of late. And these have in turn challenged some of our assumptions about what happened in the Universe, and when. And in the end, they are helping scientists to create a more detailed and complete account of cosmic evolution. Someday soon, we might even be able to probe the earliest moments in the Universe, and watch creation in action!

Further Reading: CfA, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

 

Do Stars Move? Tracking Their Movements Across the Sky

How Fast Are Stars Moving?


The night sky, is the night sky, is the night sky. The constellations you learned as a child are the same constellations that you see today. Ancient people recognized these same constellations. Oh sure, they might not have had the same name for it, but essentially, we see what they saw.

But when you see animations of galaxies, especially as they come together and collide, you see the stars buzzing around like angry bees. We know that the stars can have motions, and yet, we don’t see them moving?

How fast are they moving, and will we ever be able to tell?

Stars, of course, do move. It’s just that the distances are so great that it’s very difficult to tell. But astronomers have been studying their position for thousands of years. Tracking the position and movements of the stars is known as astrometry.

We trace the history of astrometry back to 190 BC, when the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus first created a catalog of the 850 brightest stars in the sky and their position. His student Ptolemy followed up with his own observations of the night sky, creating his important document: the Almagest.

Printed rendition of a geocentric cosmological model from Cosmographia, Antwerp, 1539. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Fastfission

In the Almagest, Ptolemy laid out his theory for an Earth-centric Universe, with the Moon, Sun, planets and stars in concentric crystal spheres that rotated around the planet. He was wrong about the Universe, of course, but his charts and tables were incredibly accurate, measuring the brightness and location of more than 1,000 stars.

A thousand years later, the Arabic astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi completed an even more detailed measurement of the sky using an astrolabe.

One of the most famous astronomers in history was the Danish Tycho Brahe. He was renowned for his ability to measure the position of stars, and built incredibly precise instruments for the time to do the job. He measured the positions of stars to within 15 to 35 arcseconds of accuracy. Just for comparison, a human hair, held 10 meters away is an arcsecond wide.

Also, I’m required to inform you that Brahe had a fake nose. He lost his in a duel, but had a brass replacement made.

In 1807, Friedrich Bessel was the first astronomer to measure the distance to a nearby star 61 Cygni. He used the technique of parallax, by measuring the angle to the star when the Earth was on one side of the Sun, and then measuring it again 6 months later when the Earth was on the other side.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Over the course of this period, this relatively closer star moves slightly back and forth against the more distant background of the galaxy.

And over the next two centuries, other astronomers further refined this technique, getting better and better at figuring out the distance and motions of stars.

But to really track the positions and motions of stars, we needed to go to space. In 1989, the European Space Agency launched their Hipparcos mission, named after the Greek astronomer we talked about earlier. Its job was to measure the position and motion of the nearby stars in the Milky Way. Over the course of its mission, Hipparcos accurately measured 118,000 stars, and provided rough calculations for another 2 million stars.

That was useful, and astronomers have relied on it ever since, but something better has arrived, and its name is Gaia.

Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Background Credit: ESO/S. Brunier

Launched in December 2013, the European Space Agency’s Gaia in is in the process of mapping out a billion stars in the Milky Way. That’s billion, with a B, and accounts for about 1% of the stars in the galaxy. The spacecraft will track the motion of 150 million stars, telling us where everything is going over time. It will be a mind bending accomplishment. Hipparchus would be proud.

With the most precise measurements, taken year after year, the motions of the stars can indeed be calculated. Although they’re not enough to see with the unaided eye, over thousands and tens of thousands of years, the positions of the stars change dramatically in the sky.

The familiar stars in the Big Dipper, for example, look how they do today. But if you go forward or backward in time, the positions of the stars look very different, and eventually completely unrecognizable.

When a star is moving sideways across the sky, astronomers call this “proper motion”. The speed a star moves is typically about 0.1 arc second per year. This is almost imperceptible, but over the course of 2000 years, for example, a typical star would have moved across the sky by about half a degree, or the width of the Moon in the sky.

A 20 year animation showing the proper motion of Barnard’s Star. Credit: Steve Quirk, images in the Public Domain.

The star with the fastest proper motion that we know of is Barnard’s star, zipping through the sky at 10.25 arcseconds a year. In that same 2000 year period, it would have moved 5.5 degrees, or about 11 times the width of your hand. Very fast.

When a star is moving toward or away from us, astronomers call that radial velocity. They measure this by calculating the doppler shift. The light from stars moving towards us is shifted towards the blue side of the spectrum, while stars moving away from us are red-shifted.

Between the proper motion and redshift, you can get a precise calculation for the exact path a star is moving in the sky.

Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

We know, for example, that the dwarf star Hipparcos 85605 is moving rapidly towards us. It’s 16 light-years away right now, but in the next few hundred thousand years, it’s going to get as close as .13 light-years away, or about 8,200 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. This won’t cause us any direct effect, but the gravitational interaction from the star could kick a bunch of comets out of the Oort cloud and send them down towards the inner Solar System.

The motions of the stars is fairly gentle, jostling through gravitational interactions as they orbit around the center of the Milky Way. But there are other, more catastrophic events that can make stars move much more quickly through space.

When a binary pair of stars gets too close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, one can be consumed by the black hole. The other now has the velocity, without the added mass of its companion. This gives it a high-velocity kick. About once every 100,000 years, a star is kicked right out of the Milky Way from the galactic center.

A rogue star being kicked out of a galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Another situation can happen where a smaller star is orbiting around a supermassive companion. Over time, the massive star bloats up as supergiant and then detonates as a supernova. Like a stone released from a sling, the smaller star is no longer held in place by gravity, and it hurtles out into space at incredible speeds.

Astronomers have detected these hypervelocity stars moving at 1.1 million kilometers per hour relative to the center of the Milky Way.

All of the methods of stellar motion that I talked about so far are natural. But can you imagine a future civilization that becomes so powerful it could move the stars themselves?

In 1987, the Russian astrophysicist Leonid Shkadov presented a technique that could move a star over vast lengths of time. By building a huge mirror and positioning it on one side of a star, the star itself could act like a thruster.

An example of a stellar engine using a mirror and a Dyson Swarm. Credit: Vedexent at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Photons from the star would reflect off the mirror, imparting momentum like a solar sail. The mirror itself would be massive enough that its gravity would attract the star, but the light pressure from the star would keep it from falling in. This would create a slow but steady pressure on the other side of the star, accelerating it in whatever direction the civilization wanted.

Over the course of a few billion years, a star could be relocated pretty much anywhere a civilization wanted within its host galaxy.

This would be a true Type III Civilization. A vast empire with such power and capability that they can rearrange the stars in their entire galaxy into a configuration that they find more useful. Maybe they arrange all the stars into a vast sphere, or some kind of geometric object, to minimize transit and communication times. Or maybe it makes more sense to push them all into a clean flat disk.

Amazingly, astronomers have actually gone looking for galaxies like this. In theory, a galaxy under control by a Type III Civilization should be obvious by the wavelength of light they give off. But so far, none have turned up. It’s all normal, natural galaxies as far as we can see in all directions.

For our short lifetimes, it appears as if the sky is frozen. The stars remain in their exact positions forever, but if you could speed up time, you’d see that everything is in motion, all the time, with stars moving back and forth, like airplanes across the sky. You just need to be patient to see it.

Is Another Universe Sitting Too Close To Us On The Multiverse Bus?

Since the 1960s, astronomers have been aware of the electromagnetic background radiation that pervades the Universe. Known as the Cosmic Microwave Background, this radiation is the oldest light in the Universe and what is left over from the Big Bang. By 2004, astronomers also became aware that a large region within the CMB appeared to be colder than its surroundings.

Known as the “CMB Cold Spot”, scientists have puzzled over this anomaly for years, with explanations ranging from a data artifact to it being caused by a supervoid. According to a new study conducted by a team of scientists from Durham University, the presence of a supervoid has been ruled out. This conclusion once again opens the door to more exotic explanations – like the existence of a parallel Universe!

The Cold Spot is one of several anomalies that astronomers have been studying since the first maps of CMB were  created using data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). These anomalies are regions in the CMB that fall beneath the average background temperature of 2.73 degrees above absolute zero (-270.43 °C; -460.17 °F). In the case of the Cold Spot, the area is just 0.00015° colder than its surroundings.

Map of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) sky produced by the Planck satellite. The Cold Spot is shown in the inset, with coordinates and the temperature difference in the scale at the bottom. Credit: ESA/Durham University.

And yet, this temperature difference is enough that the Cold Spot has become something of a thorn in the hip of standard models of cosmology. Previously, the smart money appeared to be on it being caused by a supervoid – and area of space measuring billions of light years across which contained few galaxies. To test this theory, the Durham team conducted a survey of the galaxies in the region.

This technique, which measures the extent to which visible light coming from an object is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum, has been the standard method for determining the distance to other galaxies for over a century. For the sake of their study, the Durham team relied on data from the Anglo-Australian Telescope to conduct a survey where they measured the redshifts of 7,000 nearby galaxies.

Based on this high-fidelity dataset, the researchers found no evidence that the Cold Spot corresponded to a relative lack of galaxies. In other words, there was no indication that the region is a supervoid. The results of their study will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) under the title “Evidence Against a Supervoid Causing the CMB Cold Spot“.

As Ruari Mackenzie – a postdoctoral student in the Dept. of Physics at Durham University, a member of the Center for Extragalactic Astronomy, and the lead author on the paper – explained in an RAS press release:

“The voids we have detected cannot explain the Cold Spot under standard cosmology. There is the possibility that some non-standard model could be proposed to link the two in the future but our data place powerful constraints on any attempt to do that.”

The 3-D galaxy distribution in the foreground of the CMB Cold Spot, where each point is a galaxy. Credit: Durham University.

Specifically, the Durham team found that the Cold Spot region could be split into smaller voids, each of which were surrounded by clusters of galaxies. This distribution was consistent with a control field the survey chose for the study, both of which exhibited the same “soap bubble” structure. The question therefore arises: if the Cold Spot is not the result of a void or a relative lack of galaxies, what is causing it?

This is where the more exotic explanations come in, which emphasize that the Cold Spot may be due to something that exists outside the standard model of cosmology. As Tom Shanks, a Professor with the Dept.of Physics at Durham and a co-author of the study, explained:

“Perhaps the most exciting of these is that the Cold Spot was caused by a collision between our universe and another bubble Universe. If further, more detailed, analysis of CMB data proves this to be the case then the Cold Spot might be taken as the first evidence for the multiverse – and billions of other Universes may exist like our own.”

Multiverse Theory, which was first proposed by philosopher and psychologist William James, states that there may be multiple or an even infinite number of Universes that exist parallel to our own. Between these Universes exists the entirety of existence and all cosmological phenomena – i.e. space, time, matter, energy, and all of the physical laws that bind them.

Whereas it is often treated as a philosophical concept, the theory arose in part from the study of cosmological forces, like black holes and problems arising from the Big Bang Theory. In addition, variations on multiverse theory have been suggested as potential resolutions to theories that go beyond the Standard Model of particle physics – such as String Theory and M-theory.

Another variation – the Many-Worlds interpretation – has also been offered as a possible resolution for the wavefunction of subatomic particles. Essentially, it states that all possible outcomes in quantum mechanics exist in alternate universes, and there really is no such thing as “wavefunction collapse’.  Could it therefore be argued that an alternate or parallel Universe is too close to our own, and thus responsible for the anomalies we see in the CMB?

As explanations go, it certainly is exciting, if perhaps a bit fantastic? And the Durham team is not prepared to rule out that the Cold Spot could be the result fluctuations that can be explained by the standard model of cosmology. Right now, the only thing that can be said definitively is that the Cold Spot cannot be explained by something as straightforward as a supervoid and the absence of galaxies.

And in the meantime, additional surveys and experiments need to be conducted. Otherwise, this mystery may become a real sticking point for cosmology!

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, arXiv

James Webb Space Telescope Celebrated in Stunning New Video

Behold, the mighty primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, in all its gleaming glory! Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA has some high hopes for the James Webb Space Telescope, which finished “cold” phase of its construction at the end of November, 2016. The result of 20 years of engineering and construction, this telescope is seen as Hubble’s natural successor. Once it is deployed in October of 2018, it will use a 6.5 meter (21 ft 4 in) primary mirror to examine the Universe in the visible, near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths.

All told, the JWST will be 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, and will be capable of looking over 13 billion years in time. To honor the completion of the telescope, Northrop Grumman – the company contracted by NASA to build it – and Crazy Boat Pictures teamed up to produce a short film about it. Titled “Into the Unknown – the Story of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope“, the video chronicles the project from inception to completion.

The film (which you can watch at the bottom of the page) shows the construction of the telescopes large mirrors, its instrument package and its framework. It also features conversations with the scientists and engineers who were involved, and some stunning visuals. In addition to detailing the creation process, the film also delves into the telescope’s mission and all the cosmological questions it will address.

In addressing the nature of James Webb’s mission, the film also pays homage to the Hubble Space Telescope and its many accomplishments. Over the course of its 26 years of operation, it has revealed auroras, supernovas and discovered billions of stars, galaxies and exoplanets, some of which were shown to orbit within their star’s respective habitable zones.

On top of that, Hubble was used to determine the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years) and confirmed the existence of the supermassive black hole (SMBH) – aka. Sagitarrius A* – at the center of our galaxy, not to mention many others. It was also responsible for measuring the rate at which the Universe is expanding – in other words, measuring the Hubble Constant.

This played a pivotal role in helping scientists to develop the theory of Dark Energy, one of the most profound discoveries since Edwin Hubble (the telescope’s namesake) proposed that the Universe is in a state of expansion back in 1929. So it goes without saying that the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope led to some of greatest discoveries in modern astronomy.

That being said, Hubble is still subject to limitations, which astronomers are now hoping to push past. For one, its instruments are not able to pick up the most distant (and hence, dimmest) galaxies in the Universe, which date to just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Even with “The Deep Fields” initiative, Hubble is still limited to seeing back to about half a billion years after the Big Bang.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

As Dr. John Mather, the project scientist for the James Webb Telescope, told Universe Today via email:

“Hubble showed us that we could not see the first galaxies being born, because they’re too far away, too faint, and too red. JWST is bigger, colder, and observes infrared light to see those first galaxies.  Hubble showed us there’s a black hole in the center of almost every galaxy. JWST will look as far back in time as possible to see when and how that happened: did the galaxy form the black hole, or did the galaxy grow around a pre-existing black hole?  Hubble showed us great clouds of glowing gas and dust where stars are being born. JWST will look through the dust clouds to see the stars themselves as they form in the cloud. Hubble showed us that we can see some planets around other stars, and that we can get chemical information about other planets that happen to pass directly in front of their stars.  JWST will extend this to longer wavelengths with a bigger telescope, with a possibility of detecting water on a super-Earth exoplanet. Hubble showed us details of planets and asteroids close to home, and JWST will give a closer look, though it’s still better to send a visiting robot if we can.”
Basically, the JWST will be able to see farther back to about 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies were born. It is also designed to operate at the L2 Lagrange Point, farther away from the Earth than Hubble – which was designed to remain in low-Earth orbit. This means the JWST will subject to less thermal and optical interference from the Earth and the Moon, but will also make it more difficult to service.

With its much larger set of segmented mirrors, it will observe the Universe as it capture light from the first galaxies and stars. Its extremely-sensitive suite of optics will also be able to gather information in the long-wavelength (orange-red) and infrared wavelengths with greater accuracy, measuring the redshift of distant galaxies, and even helping in the hunt for extra-solar planets.

A primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, made of beryllium. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given
A primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, made of beryllium. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

With the assembly of its major components now complete, the telescope will spend the next two years undergoing tests before its scheduled launch date in October of 2018. These will include stress tests that will subject the telescope to the types of intense vibrations, sounds and g forces (ten times Earth normal) it will experience inside the Ariane 5 rocket that will take it into space.

Six months before its deployment, NASA also plans to send the JWST to the Johnson Space Center where it will be subjected to the kinds of conditions it will experience in space. This will consists of scientists placing the telescope in a chamber where temperatures will be lowered to 53 K (-220 °C; -370 °F), which will simulate its operating conditions at the L2 Lagrange Point.

Once all of that is complete and the JWST checks out, it will be launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch pad in French Guayana. And thanks to experience gained from Hubble and updated algorithms, the telescope will be focused and gathering information shortly after it is launched. And as Dr. Mather explained, the big cosmological questions it is expected to address are numerous:

“Where did we come from? The Big Bang gave us hydrogen and helium spread out almost uniformly across the universe. But something, presumably gravity, stopped the expansion of the material and turned it into galaxies and stars and black holes. JWST will look at all these processes: how did the first luminous objects form, and what were they? How and where did the black holes form, and what did they do to the growing galaxies? How did the galaxies cluster together, and how did galaxies like the Milky Way grow and develop their beautiful spiral structure? Where is the cosmic dark matter and how does it affect ordinary matter? How much dark energy is there, and how does it change with time?”

Needless to say, NASA and the astronomical community are quite excited that the James Webb Telescope is finished construction, and can’t wait until it is deployed and begins to send back data. One can only imagine the kinds of things it will see deep in the cosmic field. But in the meantime, be sure to check out the film and see how this effort all came together:

Further Reading: NASA – JWST, Northrop Grumman

What Are Cosmic Voids?

What Are Cosmic Voids?


Clearly I need to learn to be more specific when I write these articles. Everything time I open my mouth, I need to prepare for the collective imagination of the viewers.

We did a whole article about the biggest things in the Universe, and identified superclusters of galaxies as the best candidate. Well, the part of superclusters actually gravitationally bound enough to eventually merge together in the future. But you had other ideas, including dark energy, or the Universe itself as the biggest thing. Even love? Aww.

One intriguing suggestion, though, is the idea of the vast cosmic voids between galaxies. Hmm, is the absence of something a thing? Whoa, time to go to art school and talk about negative space.

Ah well, who cares? It’s a super interesting topic, so let’s go ahead and talk about voids.

When most people imagine the expansion of the Universe after the Big Bang, they probably envision an equally spaced smattering of galaxies zipping away from one another. And that’s pretty accurate at the smallest scales.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

But at the largest scales, like when you can see billions of light-years in a cube that fits on your computer screen, then a larger structure starts to take shape.

It looks less like an explosion, and more like a tasty tasty sponge cake, with huge filaments, walls, and the vast gaps in between. The gaps, the voids, the supervoids, are the point of today’s article, but to understand the gaps, we’ve got to understand why the Universe is clumped up the way it is.

Run the Universe clock backwards, all the way to the beginning, to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. When the entire cosmos was compressed down into a tiny region of superheated plasma.

Although it was mostly uniform in density, there were slight variations – quantum fluctuations in spacetime itself. And as the Universe expanded, those differences were magnified. What started out as tiny differences in the density of matter at the smallest scale, turned into regions of higher and lower density of matter in the Universe.

Here we are, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and we can see how the microscopic variations at the beginning of time were magnified to the largest scales. Instead of individual galaxies, we see huge walls containing thousands of galaxies; filaments of galaxies connect in nodes. These structures are huge; hundreds of millions of light-years across, containing thousands of galaxies. But the gaps, the voids, between these clusters can be even larger.

Astronomers first started thinking about these voids back in the 1970s, when the first large-scale surveys of the Universe were made. By measuring the redshift of galaxies, and determining how fast they were speeding away from us, astronomers started to realize that the distribution of galaxies wasn’t even.

Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO
Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO

Some galaxies were relatively close, but then there were huge gaps in distance, and then another cluster of galaxies collected together.

Over the last few decades, astronomers have built sophisticated 3-dimensional models that map out the Universe in the largest scales. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, updated in 2009, has provided the most accurate map so far. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, destined for first light in a few years will take this to the next level.

The largest void that we currently know of is known as the Giant Void (original, I know), and it’s located about 1.5 billion light-year away. It has a diameter of 1 billion to 1.3 billion light-years across.

To be fair, these regions aren’t really completely empty. They just have less density than the regions with galaxies. In general, they’ve got about a tenth the density of matter that’s average for the Universe.

Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Which means that there’s still gas and dust in these regions, as well as dark matter. There will still be stars and galaxies out in the middle of those voids. Even the Giant Void has 17 separate galaxy clusters inside it.

You might imagine continuing to scale outward. Maybe you’re wondering if the this spongy distribution of matter is actually just the next step to an even larger structure, and so on, and so on. But it isn’t. In fact, astronomers call this “the End of Greatness”, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any larger structure to the Universe.

As the expansion of the Universe continues, these voids are going to get even larger. The walls and filaments connecting clusters of galaxies will stretch and break. The voids will merge with each other, and only gravitationally bound galaxy clusters will remain as islands, adrift in the expanding emptiness.

The full scale of the observable Universe is truly mind boggling. We’re here in this tiny corner of the Local Group, which is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is perched on the precipice of vast cosmic voids. So much to explore, so let’s get to work.

Behold The Distant Universe!

This past Monday (June 27th), the National Astronomy Meeting – which is hosted by the Royal Astronomy Society – kicked off at the University of Nottingham in the UK. As one of the largest professional conferences in Europe (with over 500 scientists in attendance), this annual meeting is an opportunity for astronomers and scientists from a variety of fields to present that latest in their research.

And of the many presentations made so far, one of the most exciting came from a research team from the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, which presented the latest near-infrared images obtained by the Ultra Deep Survey (UDS). In addition to being a spectacular series of pictures, they also happened to be the deepest view of the Universe to date.

The UDS survey, which began in 2005, is one of the five projects that make up the UKIRT’s Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS). For the sake of their survey, the UDS team relies on the Wide Field Camera (WFCAM) on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. At 3.8-metres in diameter, the UKIRT is the world’s second largest telescope dedicated to infrared astronomy.

As Professor Omar Almaini, the head of the University of Nottingham research team, explained to Universe Today via email:

“The UDS is by far the deepest near-infrared survey over such a large, contiguous area (0.8 sq degrees). There is only one other similar survey, which is known as UltraVISTA. It covers a larger area (1.5 sq degree) but is not quite so deep. Together the UDS and UltraVISTA should revolutionize studies of the high-redshift Universe over the next few years.”
An optical/IR image taken by the UDS survey. Credit: nottingham.ac.uk
An optical/IR image taken with the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope as part of the UDS. Credit: nottingham.ac.uk

Ultimately, the goal of UDS is shed light on how and when galaxies form, and to chart their evolution over the course of the last 13 billion years (roughly 820 million years after the Big Bang). For over a decade, the UDS has been observing the same patch of sky repeatedly, relying on optical and infrared imaging to ensure that the light of distant objects (which is redshifted due to the profound distances involved) can be captured.

“Stars emit most of their radiation at optical wavelengths, which is redshifted to the near-infrared at high redshift,” said Almaini. “Near-infrared surveys therefore provide the least biased census of galaxies in the early Universe and the best measurements of the stellar mass. Deep optical surveys will only detect galaxies that are bright in the rest-frame ultraviolet, so they are biased against galaxies that are obscured by dust, or those that have stopped forming stars.”

In total, the project has accumulated more than 1000 hours of exposure time, detecting over two hundred and fifty thousand galaxies – several hundred of which were observed within the first billion years after the Big Bang. The final images, which were released yesterday and presented at the National Astronomy Meeting, showed an area four times the size of the full Moon, and at an unprecedented depth.

Data previously released by the UDS project has already led to several scientific advances. These include studies of the earliest galaxies in the Universe after the Big Bang, measurements on the build-up of galaxies over time, and studies of the large-scale distribution of galaxies to measure the influence of dark matter.

New research suggests that Dark Matter may exist in clumps distributed throughout our universe. Credit: Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics
Research into the USD images is inspiring scientific research, which includes studies into dark matter. Credit: Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics

With this latest release, many more are anticipated, with astronomers around the world spending the next few years studying the early stages of galaxy formation and evolution. As Almaini put it:

“With the UDS (and UltraVISTA) we now have the ability to study large samples of galaxies in the distant Universe, rather than just a handful. With thousands of galaxies at each epoch we can perform detailed comparisons of the evolving galaxy populations, and we can also study their large-scale structure to understand how they trace the underlying cosmic web of dark matter. With large samples we can also look for rare but important populations, such as those in transition.”

“A key aim is to understand why many massive galaxies abruptly stop forming stars around 10 billion years ago, and also how they transform from disk-like systems into elliptical galaxies. We have recently identified a few hundred examples of galaxies in the process of transformation at early times, which we are actively studying to understand what is driving the rapid changes.”

Along with the subject of galaxy surveys and large scale structure, “galaxy formation and evolution” and “galaxy surveys and large scale structure” were two of the 2016 National Astronomy Meeting’s main themes. Naturally, the UDS release fit neatly into both categories. The others themes included the Sun, stars and planetary science, gravitational waves, modified gravity, archeoastronomy, astrochemistry, and education and outreach.

The Meeting will run until tomorrow (Friday, July 1st), and also included a presentations on the latest infrared images of Jupiter, which were taken by the ESO in preparation for the Juno spacecraft’s arrival on July 4th.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

Japanese 3D Galaxy Map Confirms Einstein Was One Smart Dude

On June 30th, 1905, Albert Einstein started a revolution with the publication of theory of Special Relativity. This theory, among other things, stated that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of the source. In 1915, he followed this up with the publication of his theory of General Relativity, which asserted that gravity has a warping effect on space-time. For over a century, these theories have been an essential tool in astrophysics, explaining the behavior of the Universe on the large scale.

However, since the 1990s, astronomers have been aware of the fact that the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. In an effort to explain the mechanics behind this, suggestions have ranged from the possible existence of an invisible energy (i.e. Dark Energy) to the possibility that Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity could be breaking down. But thanks to the recent work of an international research team, it is now known that Einstein had it right all along.

Continue reading “Japanese 3D Galaxy Map Confirms Einstein Was One Smart Dude”

New Lenses To Help In The Hunt For Dark Energy

Since the 1990s, scientists have been aware that for the past several billion years, the Universe has been expanding at an accelerated rate. They have further hypothesized that some form of invisible energy must be responsible for this, one which makes up 68.3% of the mass-energy of the observable Universe. While there is no direct evidence that this “Dark Energy” exists, plenty of indirect evidence has been obtained by observing the large-scale mass density of the Universe and the rate at which is expanding.

But in the coming years, scientists hope to develop technologies and methods that will allow them to see exactly how Dark Energy has influenced the development of the Universe. One such effort comes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where scientists are working to develop an instrument that will create a comprehensive 3D map of a third of the Universe so that its growth history can be tracked.

Continue reading “New Lenses To Help In The Hunt For Dark Energy”

Farthest Galaxy Ever Seen Viewed By Hubble Telescope

Since it was first launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided people all over the world with breathtaking views of the Universe. Using its high-tech suite of instruments, Hubble has helped resolve some long-standing problems in astronomy, and helped to raise new questions. And always, its operators have been pushing it to the limit, hoping to gaze farther and farther into the great beyond and see what’s lurking there.

And as NASA announced with a recent press release, using the HST, an international team of astronomers just shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. In so doing, they have not only looked deeper into the cosmos than ever before, but deeper into it’s past. And what they have seen could tell us much about the early Universe and its formation.

Due to the effects of special relativity, astronomers know that when they are viewing objects in deep space, they are seeing them as they were millions or even billions of years ago. Ergo, an objects that is located 13.4 billions of light-years away will appear to us as it was 13.4 billion years ago, when its light first began to make the trip to our little corner of the Universe.

An international team of scientists has used the Hubble Space Telescope to spectroscopically confirm the farthest galaxy to date. Credits: NASA/ESA/B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz)/A. Feild (STScI)
An international team of scientists has used the Hubble Space Telescope to spectroscopically confirm the farthest galaxy to date. Credits: NASA/ESA/B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz)/A. Feild (STScI)

This is precisely what the team of astronomers witnessed when they gazed upon GN-z11, a distant galaxy located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. With this one galaxy, the team of astronomers – which includes scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California – were able to see what a galaxy in our Universe looked like just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Prior to this, the most distant galaxy ever viewed by astronomers was located 13.2 billion light years away. Using the same spectroscopic techniques, the Hubble team confirmed that GN-z11 was nearly 200 million light years more distant. This was a big surprise, as it took astronomers into a region of the Universe that was thought to be unreachable using the Hubble Space Telescope.

In fact, astronomers did not suspect that they would be able to probe this deep into space and time without using Spitzer, or until the deployment the James Webb Space Telescope – which is scheduled to launch in October 2018. As Pascal Oesch of Yale University, the principal investigator of the study, explained:

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age. Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory.”

The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It's about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. Credit: NASA

In addition, the findings also have some implications for previous distance estimates. In the past, astronomers had estimated the distance of GN-z11 by relying on Hubble and Spitzer’s color imaging techniques. This time, they relied on Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to spectroscopically measure the galaxies redshift for the first time. In so doing, they determined that GN-z11 was farther way than they thought, which could mean that some particularly bright galaxies who’s distanced have been measured using Hubble could also be farther away.

The results also reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. For starters, the Hubble images (combined with data from Spitzer) showed that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way is today, and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. At the same time, it is forming stars at a rate that is 20 times greater than that of our own galaxy.

As Garth Illingworth – one of the team’s investigator’s from the University of California, Santa Cruz – explained:

“It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon. This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Last, but not least, they provide a tantalizing clue as to what future missions – like the James Webb Space Telescope – will be finding. Once deployed, astronomers will likely be looking ever farther into space, and farther into the past. With every step, we are closing in on seeing what the very first galaxies that formed in our Universe looked like.

Further Reading: NASA