Observing the Birth of the Universe

By David L. Brown

The mystery of how our universe came into being is a major step closer to being answered, according to news from NASA. According to a story in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald (here), the Spitzer Space Telescope has peered nearly back to the time of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years into the past to catch this bizarre glimpse of our universe as it existed then:

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According to the report posted on the newspaper’s web site tomorrow (yes, despite the dateline on this article, as I write this it is already December 20 in Australia):

An Australian astrophysicist, Ray Norris, said the NASA team may have found “the holy grail” of astronomy.

What the ancient objects are remains a mystery. One possibility is stars, the first to light up after the dawn of time. They would have been “humungous”, said NASA, “more than 1000 times the mass of our sun”. Or they may be “voracious black holes”. While black holes are invisible, heat emitted by matter plunging into them can be detected.

“Whatever these objects are,” said Alexander Kashlinsky, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, “they are intrinsically incredibly bright and very different from anything in existence today.” The image was made by Spitzer shooting pictures of five areas of the sky. All light from stars and galaxies in the foreground was then removed, leaving only the ancient infrared glow.

Australian astrophysicist Norris said the image doesn’t show the mysterious objects themselves, but their glow radiating from all parts of the sky because, as he explained, “the early universe is all around us.” The news report continued:

The next step would be to find and get direct images of the objects. “Many of us are searching for these objects,” Professor Norris said.

He believed locating them would be possible with the James Webb space telescope, the Hubble’s successor, to be launched in the next decade, and the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope that may be built in Australia. Professor Norris conceded astronomers could not explain how such big objects formed so quickly after the Big Bang.

“According to our models, it takes quite a while to build black holes and galaxies,” he said.

The known universe — its past and present framed by the vast sweep of time, billions of galaxies and the births and deaths of trillions or even quadrillions of stars — is an awe-inspiring thing to contemplate. It makes our fragile Earth and the human civilization to which it is home seem a very tiny thing indeed. And yet, seen from the other end of the telescope so to speak, we might conclude that our beautiful planet is the rarest of gems among an unimaginable diversity of physical possibilities.

What we humans take so much for granted is worth preserving at almost any cost — so it is particularly disheartening to see so little effort being devoted to that end.

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