Behold The Distant Universe!

An image of a small section (0.4%) of the UDS field - showing a series of very distant galaxies as they appeared 9 billion years ago. Credit: Omar Almaini, University of Nottingham

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

An international team of researchers have produced the largest 3-D map of the universe to date, which validates Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Credit: NAOJ/CFHT/ SDSS

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

Galaxy GN-z11 superimposed on an image from the GOODS-North survey. Credit: NASA/ESA/P. Oesch (Yale University)/G. Brammer (STScI)/P. van Dokkum (Yale University)/G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)

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

Missing Matter Found! Fast Radio Bursts Confirm Cosmological Model

Researchers at the CSIRO have managed to pinpoint the location of an FRB for the first time, yielding valuable information about our universe. Credit: csiro.au

In July of 2012, researchers at the CERN laboratory made history when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Though its existence had been hypothesized for over half a century, confirming its existence was a major boon for scientists. In discovering this one particle, the researchers were also able to confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. Much the same is true of our current cosmological model.

For decades, scientists been going by the theory that the Universe consists of about 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% “luminous matter” – i.e. the matter we can see. But even when all the visible matter is added up, there is a discrepancy where much of it is still considered “missing”. But thanks to the efforts of a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), scientists now know that we have it right.

This began on April 18th, 2015, when the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory in Australia detected a fast radio burst (FRB) coming from space. An international alert was immediately issued, and within a few hours, telescopes all around the world were looking for the signal. The CSIRO team began tracking it as well with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) located at the Paul Wild Observatory (north of Parkes).

image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region).. Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).
Image showing the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope (left) and zoom-ins on the area where the signal came from (left). Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

With the help of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) Subaru telescope in Hawaii, they were able to pinpoint where the signal was coming from. As the CSIRO team described in a paper submitted to Nature, they identified the source, which was an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light years from Earth.

This was an historic accomplishment, since pinpointing the source of FRBs have never before been possible. Not only do the signals last mere milliseconds, but they are also subject to dispersion – i.e. a delay caused by how much material they pass through. And while FRBs have been detected in the past, the teams tracking them have only been able to obtain measurements of the dispersion, but never the signal’s redshift.

Redshift occurs as a result of an object moving away at relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light). For decades, scientists have been using it to determine how fast other galaxies are moving away from our own, and hence the rate of expansion of the Universe. Relying on optical data obtained by the Subaru telescope, the CSIRO team was able to obtain both the dispersion and the redshift data from this signal.

As stated in their paper, this information yielded a “direct measurement of the cosmic density of ionized baryons in the intergalactic medium”. Or, as Dr. Simon Johnston – of the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division and the co-author of the study – explains, the team was not only to locate the source of the signal, but also obtain measurements which confirmed the distribution of matter in the Universe.

“Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had,” he said. “By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Dr. Evan Keane of the SKA Organization, and lead author on the paper, was similarly enthused about the team’s discovery. “[W]e have found the missing matter,” he said. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

As already noted, FRB signals are quite rare, and only 16 have been detected in the past. Most of these were found by sifting through data months or years after the signal was detected, by which time it would be impossible for any follow-up observations. To address this, Dr. Keane and his team developed a system to detect FRBs and immediately alert other telescopes, so that the source could be pinpointed.

artists rendition of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org
Artists impression of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org

It is known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort led by the SKA Organization to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Combining extreme sensitivity, resolution and a wide field of view, the SKA is expected to trace many FRBs to their host galaxies. In so doing, it is hoped the array will provide more measurements confirming the distribution of matter in the Universe, as well as more information on dark energy.

In the end, these and other discoveries by the SKA could have far-reaching consequences. Knowing the distribution of matter in the universe, and improving our understanding of dark matter (and perhaps even dark energy) could go a long way towards developing a Theory Of Everything (TOE). And knowing how all the fundamental forces of our universe interact will go a long way to finally knowing with certainty how it came to be.

These are exciting time indeed. With every step, we are peeling back the layers of our universe!

Further Reading: CSIRO, SKA Organization, Nature.

What is the Black Hole Information Paradox?

What is the Black Hole Information Paradox?

Have you heard that black holes destroy any information that goes into them? Why is this such a big problem for physics?

In my day, things were simple. Robot dogs had wheels and laser noses. School was uphill both ways. Unwanted children removed themselves from lawns, and we didn’t need those horrible electrified tentacle arms. The cut of my jib was completely beyond reproach. Nathan Fillion was the captain of the Serenity all day, every day. … And black holes were holes that were black. By that I mean black holes would compress matter and energy into an infinitely dense singularity, and didn’t create a seemingly insurmountable information paradox. Yep, those were the good ole’ days.

But those days are over. Now it’s all 50 shades of grey, with the laws of physics bending under other laws of physics. “Hashtag not my Christian”. What I’m talking about is the black hole information paradox.

First, let’s talk information. When physicists talk information, they’re on about the specific state of every single particle in the Universe: mass, position, spin, temperature, you name it. The fingerprint that uniquely identifies each one, and the probabilities for what they’re going to do in the Universe. You can change atoms, crush them together, but the quantum wave function that describes them must always be preserved.

Quantum physics allows you to run the whole Universe forwards and backwards, as long as you reverse everything in your math: charge, parity and time. Here’s the important part. The big brains tell us information must live on, no matter what. Think about it like energy. You can’t destroy energy, all you can do is transform it.

Now, the black hole recap. Naturally formed when the largest stars, those with more than 20 times the mass of the Sun, collapse violently and explode. Here the density of matter is so high, the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light. The fancy ones have a super-heated accretion disk of matter swirling around the black hole event horizon, where even light can be pulled into orbit.

Here, we get one of the strangest side effects from Relativity: time dilation. Imagine a clock falling towards a black hole, moving deeper into the gravity well. It would appear to slow as it got closer to the black hole, and eventually freeze at the edge of the event horizon. Photons from the clock would stretch out, and the color of the clock would redshift. Eventually, it fades away as the photons stretched out beyond what our eyes can detect.

If you could stare at the black hole for billions of years, you would see everything it ever collected, stuck to the outside like flypaper. You could point out the clock, the Titanic, the Ranger, and USS Cygnus, and theoretically, you could identify the quantum state of every single particle and photon that went into the black hole. Since they’re going to take an infinite length of time to disappear completely, everything’s fine.

Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA
Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA

Their information is preserved forever on the surface of the black hole. They’re all totally dead, but their information, their precious precious quantum information, is totally safe.

If you could unravel a black hole, you could get at all the quantum information describing everything the black hole ever consumed. And least, that’s how it was in the good old days.

But in 1975, Hawking dropped a bombshell. He realized black holes have a temperature, over vast periods of time, they would evaporate away until there was nothing left. releasing their mass and energy back into the Universe. Unsurprisingly known as Hawking Radiation.

But this… idea created a paradox. The information about what went into the black hole is preserved by time dilation, but with the mass itself of the black hole evaporating. Eventually, it will completely disappear, and then, where does our information go? That information which can’t be destroyed…?

This is strictly not cricket, and puzzled astronomers. They’ve been working for decades to resolve it. There’s a fun stack of options here:
Black holes don’t evaporate at all, and Hawking was wrong.
Information within the black hole somehow leaks back out while Hawking radiation is escaping.
The black hole holds it all in until the very end, and as the final two particles evaporate, all the information is suddenly released back into the Universe.
It all goes into the teeniest possible bits and nothing is lost OR The information is compressed into a microscopic space, which remains after the black hole itself has evaporated.

An artist's representation showing outflow from a supermassive black hole inside the middle of a galaxy.  Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
An artist’s representation showing outflow from a supermassive black hole inside the middle of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

And maybe, physicists will never figure it out. Hawking recently proposed a new idea to resolve the black hole information paradox. He has suggested that there’s a way that new Hawking radiation could be imprinted by the information of new matter falling into the black hole.

So, the information of everything falling in is preserved by the outgoing radiation, returning it to the Universe and resolving the paradox. This is a hunch, since Hawking radiation itself has never been detected. We are decades away from knowing if this is in the right direction, or even if there’s a way to resolve the paradox.

In situations like this that we’re reminded how little about the Universe we really understand. Some aspect of our understanding of this whole process is unclear, and it’ll take much more detective work and experimentation to get closer to the truth.

What information would like to be destroyed from the Universe forever? Tell us all your secrets in the comments below.

How Can Space Travel Faster Than The Speed Of Light?

What would you see at the speed of light/

Cosmologists are intellectual time travelers. Looking back over billions of years, these scientists are able to trace the evolution of our Universe in astonishing detail. 13.8 billion years ago, the Big Bang occurred. Fractions of a second later, the fledgling Universe expanded exponentially during an incredibly brief period of time called inflation. Over the ensuing eons, our cosmos has grown to such an enormous size that we can no longer see the other side of it.

But how can this be? If light’s velocity marks a cosmic speed limit, how can there possibly be regions of spacetime whose photons are forever out of our reach? And even if there are, how do we know that they exist at all?

The Expanding Universe

Like everything else in physics, our Universe strives to exist in the lowest possible energy state possible. But around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, inflationary cosmologists believe that the cosmos found itself resting instead at a “false vacuum energy” – a low-point that wasn’t really a low-point. Seeking the true nadir of vacuum energy, over a minute fraction of a moment, the Universe is thought to have ballooned by a factor of 1050.

Since that time, our Universe has continued to expand, but at a much slower pace. We see evidence of this expansion in the light from distant objects. As photons emitted by a star or galaxy propagate across the Universe, the stretching of space causes them to lose energy. Once the photons reach us, their wavelengths have been redshifted in accordance with the distance they have traveled.

Two sources of redshift: Doppler and cosmological expansion; modeled after Koupelis & Kuhn. Credit: Brews Ohare.
Two sources of redshift: Doppler and cosmological expansion; modeled after Koupelis & Kuhn. Bottom: Detectors catch the light that is emitted by a central star. This light is stretched, or redshifted, as space expands in between. Credit: Brews Ohare.

This is why cosmologists speak of redshift as a function of distance in both space and time. The light from these distant objects has been traveling for so long that, when we finally see it, we are seeing the objects as they were billions of years ago.

The Hubble Volume

Redshifted light allows us to see objects like galaxies as they existed in the distant past; but we cannot see all events that occurred in our Universe during its history. Because our cosmos is expanding, the light from some objects is simply too far away for us ever to see.

The physics of that boundary rely, in part, on a chunk of surrounding spacetime called the Hubble volume. Here on Earth, we define the Hubble volume by measuring something called the Hubble parameter (H0), a value that relates the apparent recession speed of distant objects to their redshift. It was first calculated in 1929, when Edwin Hubble discovered that faraway galaxies appeared to be moving away from us at a rate that was proportional to the redshift of their light.

Fit of redshift velocities to Hubble's law. Credit: Brews Ohare
Fit of redshift velocities to Hubble’s law. Credit: Brews Ohare

Dividing the speed of light by H0, we get the Hubble volume. This spherical bubble encloses a region where all objects move away from a central observer at speeds less than the speed of light. Correspondingly, all objects outside of the Hubble volume move away from the center faster than the speed of light.

Yes, “faster than the speed of light.” How is this possible?

The Magic of Relativity

The answer has to do with the difference between special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity requires what is called an “inertial reference frame” – more simply, a backdrop. According to this theory, the speed of light is the same when compared in all inertial reference frames. Whether an observer is sitting still on a park bench on planet Earth or zooming past Neptune in a futuristic high-velocity rocketship, the speed of light is always the same. A photon always travels away from the observer at 300,000,000 meters per second, and he or she will never catch up.

General relativity, however, describes the fabric of spacetime itself. In this theory, there is no inertial reference frame. Spacetime is not expanding with respect to anything outside of itself, so the the speed of light as a limit on its velocity doesn’t apply. Yes, galaxies outside of our Hubble sphere are receding from us faster than the speed of light. But the galaxies themselves aren’t breaking any cosmic speed limits. To an observer within one of those galaxies, nothing violates special relativity at all. It is the space in between us and those galaxies that is rapidly proliferating and stretching exponentially.

The Observable Universe

Now for the next bombshell: The Hubble volume is not the same thing as the observable Universe.

To understand this, consider that as the Universe gets older, distant light has more time to reach our detectors here on Earth. We can see objects that have accelerated beyond our current Hubble volume because the light we see today was emitted when they were within it.

Strictly speaking, our observable Universe coincides with something called the particle horizon. The particle horizon marks the distance to the farthest light that we can possibly see at this moment in time – photons that have had enough time to either remain within, or catch up to, our gently expanding Hubble sphere.

And just what is this distance? A little more than 46 billion light years in every direction – giving our observable Universe a diameter of approximately 93 billion light years, or more than 500 billion trillion miles.

The observable - or inferrable universe. This may just be a small component of the whole ball game.
The observable universe, more technically known as the particle horizon.

(A quick note: the particle horizon is not the same thing as the cosmological event horizon. The particle horizon encompasses all the events in the past that we can currently see. The cosmological event horizon, on the other hand, defines a distance within which a future observer will be able to see the then-ancient light our little corner of spacetime is emitting today.

In other words, the particle horizon deals with the distance to past objects whose ancient light that we can see today; the cosmological event horizon deals with the distance that our present-day light that will be able to travel as faraway regions of the Universe accelerate away from us.)

Dark Energy

Thanks to the expansion of the Universe, there are regions of the cosmos that we will never see, even if we could wait an infinite amount of time for their light to reach us. But what about those areas just beyond the reaches of our present-day Hubble volume? If that sphere is also expanding, will we ever be able to see those boundary objects?

This depends on which region is expanding faster – the Hubble volume or the parts of the Universe just outside of it. And the answer to that question depends on two things: 1) whether H0 is increasing or decreasing, and 2) whether the Universe is accelerating or decelerating. These two rates are intimately related, but they are not the same.

In fact, cosmologists believe that we are actually living at a time when His decreasing; but because of dark energy, the velocity of the Universe’s expansion is increasing.

That may sound counterintuitive, but as long as Hdecreases at a slower rate than that at which the Universe’s expansion velocity is increasing, the overall movement of galaxies away from us still occurs at an accelerated pace. And at this moment in time, cosmologists believe that the Universe’s expansion will outpace the more modest growth of the Hubble volume.

So even though our Hubble volume is expanding, the influence of dark energy appears to provide a hard limit to the ever-increasing observable Universe.

Our Earthly Limitations

cosmology tapestry

Cosmologists seem to have a good handle on deep questions like what our observable Universe will someday look like and how the expansion of the cosmos will change. But ultimately, scientists can only theorize the answers to questions about the future based on their present-day understanding of the Universe. Cosmological timescales are so unimaginably long that it is impossible to say much of anything concrete about how the Universe will behave in the future. Today’s models fit the current data remarkably well, but the truth is that none of us will live long enough to see whether the predictions truly match all of the outcomes.

Disappointing? Sure. But totally worth the effort to help our puny brains consider such mind-bloggling science – a reality that, as usual, is just plain stranger than fiction.

How Big is the Universe?

Hubble infrared image showing CL J1449+0856, the most distant mature cluster of galaxies found. Color data was added from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NAOJ’s Subaru Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Gobat (Laboratoire AIM-Paris-Saclay, CEA/DSM-CNRS–)

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.

Multiverse Theory
Artist concept of the multiverse. Credit: Florida State University

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”

What do you think? Does the Universe go on for ever? 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!

What Is A Quasar?

What Is A Quasar?

I love it when scientists discover something unusual in nature. They have no idea what it is, and then over decades of research, evidence builds, and scientists grow to understand what’s going on.

My favorite example? Quasars.

Astronomers first knew they had a mystery on their hands in the 1960s when they turned the first radio telescopes to the sky.

They detected the radio waves streaming off the Sun, the Milky Way and a few stars, but they also turned up bizarre objects they couldn’t explain. These objects were small and incredibly bright.

They named them quasi-stellar-objects or “quasars”, and then began to argue about what might be causing them. The first was found to be moving away at more than a third the speed of light.

But was it really?

An artist's conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
An artist’s conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
Maybe we were seeing the distortion of gravity from a black hole, or could it be the white hole end of a wormhole. And If it was that fast, then it was really, really far… 4 billion light years away. And it generating as much energy as an entire galaxy with a hundred billion stars.

What could do this?

Here’s where Astronomers got creative. Maybe quasars weren’t really that bright, and it was our understanding of the size and expansion of the Universe that was wrong. Or maybe we were seeing the results of a civilization, who had harnessed all stars in their galaxy into some kind of energy source.

Then in the 1980s, astronomers started to agree on the active galaxy theory as the source of quasars. That, in fact, several different kinds of objects: quasars, blazars and radio galaxies were all the same thing, just seen from different angles. And that some mechanism was causing galaxies to blast out jets of radiation from their cores.

But what was that mechanism?

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
We now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers; some billions of times the mass of the Sun. When material gets too close, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. It heats up to millions of degrees, blasting out an enormous amount of radiation.

The magnetic environment around the black hole forms twin jets of material which flow out into space for millions of light-years. This is an AGN, an active galactic nucleus.

An artist's impression of how quasars might be able to construct their own host galaxies. Image Credit: ESO/L. CalçadaWhen the jets are perpendicular to our view, we see a radio galaxy. If they’re at an angle, we see a quasar. And when we’re staring right down the barrel of the jet, that’s a blazar. It’s the same object, seen from three different perspectives.

Supermassive black holes aren’t always feeding. If a black hole runs out of food, the jets run out of power and shut down. Right up until something else gets too close, and the whole system starts up again.

The Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, and it’s all out of food. It doesn’t have an active galactic nucleus, and so, we don’t appear as a quasar to some distant galaxy.

We may have in the past, and may again in the future. In 10 billion years or so, when the Milky way collides with Andromeda, our supermassive black hole may roar to life as a quasar, consuming all this new material.

If you’d like more information on Quasars, check out NASA’s Discussion on Quasars, and here’s a link to NASA’s Ask an Astrophysicist Page about Quasars.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Quasars Listen here, Episode 98: Quasars.

Sources: UT-Knoxville, NASA, Wikipedia