Skip to main content
Expert Voices

When did the universe 'wake up'?

Distant, ancient galaxies could help scientists understand how the universe turned back into plasma.
Distant, ancient galaxies could help scientists understand how the universe turned back into plasma.
(Image: © NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and "Space Radio," and author of "Your Place in the Universe." Sutter contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

It was a big moment for our cosmos when the first stars awoke, but it's an elusive one for scientists.

In new research, however, a team of astronomers has identified some of the oldest galaxies ever seen. These objects were already fully formed when the universe was just 680 million years old, according to the scientists, who also found evidence that these galaxies were flooding their surroundings with extreme ultraviolet radiation.

That flood formed gigantic bubbles, where the neutral gas became energized and ionized, offering astronomers the first direct image of a major transformational epoch in our universe.

Related: Stunning photos of our Milky Way galaxy (gallery)

Before the dawn

A long time ago, there wasn't a single star shining across the universe. In the early days of our cosmos, everything was pretty uniform: just about the same average density from place to place. A bit boring, really. 

It was also depressingly neutral, quite a change from the first days of the universe. Even earlier, in the first few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, our universe was so dang hot and dense that it was plasma; the constant cheek-to-jowl jostling had ripped apart atoms into their constituent electrons and nuclei.

But all that chaos ended when the universe turned a ripe old 380,000 years old. That's when things were spread out enough, and the temperatures were low enough, for the electrons to combine with their nuclear families and form the first atoms of hydrogen and helium. With that event came the release of a tremendous amount of radiation that we still know and love today: the cosmic microwave background.

For millions of years, the universe hung around in this state of quiet neutrality. But as the universe expanded and cooled, tiny seeds began to form; patches of that gas were, by random chance, slightly denser than their surroundings. That minuscule enhancement gave them a tiny gravitational edge, drawing material from their neighborhood onto them. Because they had grown, they had an even greater gravitational influence, pulling more material onto them, and so on.

Bit by bit, over eons, the first stars and galaxies grew in the silent, dark, neutral universe.

The cosmic dawn awakens

We don't know exactly when the first stars formed, but we know that when they did, they did so in a big, fantastic way. That's because the universe isn't neutral anymore — it's ionized.

Most of the material that you interact with daily is made of complete atoms; all of the nuclei are dutifully surrounded by shells of electrons, whizzing about and combining with each other in the wonderful, complicated dance that we call chemistry.

But this situation is unique. By far, the vast majority of matter in the universe today is a plasma, the same state it was in long, long ago, electrons and nuclei free to live their separate lives. The sun? Plasma. Other stars? Plasma. Nebulae? Plasma. The stuff between all the stars and nebulae? Plasma.

When our universe was 380,000 years old, it transformed from plasma into a neutral gas. Today, over 13 billion years later, it's mostly plasma again. Something must have happened; something must have ripped apart all those atoms in the universe. And considering that we observe the universe to be plasma as far back as we can look, to some of the first stars and galaxies to appear on the cosmic stage, whatever caused this "reionization" must have happened pretty early on.

Astronomers think the extreme ultraviolet radiation pumped out by the first generation of stars (and their deaths as supernova explosions) turned our universe back into plasma. But, frustratingly, we don't know exactly when. Even our most powerful telescopes and deepest surveys don't have the ability (yet) to peer back that far into the universe. We can clearly see the cosmic microwave background, and we can clearly see the universe as it is today, but the middle bits are currently a cosmological mystery.

We don't know when the first stars appeared — an event astronomers dub the "cosmic dawn" — and we don't know when the ensuing "epoch of reionization" began.

Blowing bubbles

But that situation is beginning to change. The hunt is on for older and older galaxies, along with surveys of the gas in their surroundings, as we try to get a handle on this important pubescent phase in the growth and evolution of our universe. Recently, an international team of researchers found three galaxies that are extremely faint, incredibly small and mind-bogglingly distant.

These diminutive galaxies were already fully formed and operating when our universe was just 680 million years old. That isn't surprising — we've found galaxies that old before — but in this study, the researchers added a new wrinkle: By examining the radiation emanating from the environment near the trio, they discovered that the galaxies had already begun to blow bubbles of ionized plasma into their surroundings.

In other words, the radiation pumping out of the galaxies had already begun to transform the universe around them, like the pimples on the forehead of a teenager. This is the first clear sign of the epoch of reionization in progress. And while astronomers had deduced that the universe had finished reionizing by the time it hit its first billionth birthday, nobody suspected that it could happen this early.

These galaxies make excellent targets for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which is specifically designed to study this era of our cosmic history. If the result holds up and more examples of reionization are found, we might finally be able to understand this transformative epoch from our universe's ancient, violent past.

The research is described in a paper posted to the preprint server arXiv.org on Jan. 7.

Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

All About Space Holiday 2019

Need more space? Subscribe to our sister title "All About Space" Magazine for the latest amazing news from the final frontier! (Image credit: All About Space)

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

  • rod
    Admin said:
    It was a big moment for our cosmos when the first stars awoke, but it's an elusive one for scientists.

    When did the universe 'wake up'? : Read more

    "In new research, however, a team of astronomers has identified some of the oldest galaxies ever seen. These objects were already fully formed when the universe was just 680 million years old, according to the scientists, who also found evidence that these galaxies were flooding their surroundings with extreme ultraviolet radiation. That flood formed gigantic bubbles, where the neutral gas became energized and ionized, offering astronomers the first direct image of a major transformational epoch in our universe."

    My observation. An interesting report showing how the universe was a plasma, changed, and now plasma again, seeking to understand when the Population III stars formed after the big bang, reionization, first galaxies formation, etc.. A galaxy said to form 680 million years after the Big Bang is discussed. Using the cosmology calculators, http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~wright/CosmoCalc.html, this looks like z = 7.8 or so with light-time distance of some 13E+9 billion years (look back time) and comoving radial distance of 29.622E+9 light years distance (where this galaxy is today vs. look back time). I used the flat universe model in the calculator. The Big Bang cosmology model, has a great detail of activity going on in it (to explain the origin of the universe and what we see today) as well as Spitzer showing cosmic high noon with star formation rates dropping off dramatically after z = 3.0. The present process operating in the universe today changed dramatically since the beginning in the Big Bang model compared to what we see today. A good example is Population III stars, no Population III stars visible today, e.g. M42 in Orion.
    Reply
  • Stephen J. Bauer
    Surely the epoch of matter precedes the origin of its combination towards visible light. Yet there are so many frequency spectrums outside that of visible light, it really is uncertain upon which came first. So the investigation into the effects of extreme ultraviolet light on neutral gases is an interesting aspect in the transformation from neutral matter to a more ionized and demonstratively energized matter. Yet even at this point in the epoch of the universe, electromagnetism should have been a more dominate force than gravity. In its simplest ideation, the concepts of cold and hot are polar opposites. The phenomenon is referred to as the Magnetic Seebeck effect or ‘thermomagnetism’.
    Its resembles a universal evolution by degrees, not unlike that proposed in the book, 'The Evolutioning of Creation: Volume2'. If you're interested in exploring this concept more, please review the alternative theories presented in the book, 'The Evolutioning of Creation: Volume 2', or even the ramifications of these concepts in the sci-fi fantasy adventure, 'Shadow-Forge Revelations'. The theoretical presentation brings forth a variety of alternative perspectives on the aspects of existence that form our reality.
    Reply
  • WhyIsTheUniverseHere???
    Where, what does the universe come from? the "Big Bang"? What was before it? Nothing? What was before "nothing" and what was there before whatever was there before "nothing"? It drives me nuts! Maybe I just bury the head in the sand and take it that the "Big Bang" is the beginning of everything, and voila! Agh!
    Reply
  • KC Strom
    WhyIsTheUniverseHere??? said:
    Where, what does the universe come from? the "Big Bang"? What was before it? Nothing? What was before "nothing" and what was there before whatever was there before "nothing"? It drives me nuts! Maybe I just bury the head in the sand and take it that the "Big Bang" is the beginning of everything, and voila! Agh!


    So, there is a theory that "our" universe began when a black hole in a separate universe "opened" and matter started streaming through. Who knows...
    Reply
  • Harold
    "KC Strom wrote , post: 512155, member: 1109581"

    So, there is a theory that "our" universe began when a black hole in a separate universe "opened" and matter started streaming through. Who knows...

    Hi KC ... sure perhaps matter came through a black hole or it was a combination of matter & gas from there and other universes where it had escaped. To think this is the only universe is absurd as an example did all planets form around our star/sun exactly at the same time ... no, did all the solar systems form in the Milky Way at exactly the same moment ... no, did all the Galaxies form exactly at the same time ... no, let's get a little more ridiculous when it rains or snows do they all form and fall to the ground at exactly the same moment ... again no. What I'm proposing is matter or gas or dust can be flung or expelled by different forces eventually grouping to form it's own mass. I am sure there are as many universes as stars in our universe each of course forming at different times from the other, many of these universes formed before us and after us. On the edge of all universes matter, gas, plasma, dust etc have a spillover into a void of seeming nothing but it too will eventually fill with enough to start it's own big bang it's a cycle in my opinion that has always existed in my opinion.
    Reply
  • Stephen J. Bauer
    WhyIsTheUniverseHere??? said:
    Where, what does the universe come from? the "Big Bang"? What was before it? Nothing? What was before "nothing" and what was there before whatever was there before "nothing"? It drives me nuts! Maybe I just bury the head in the sand and take it that the "Big Bang" is the beginning of everything, and voila! Agh!
    Asking 'why' implies that there needs to be a purpose. One purpose it fulfills is that you thought to ask the question. For if there was no universe, then you could not ask the question.
    Asking 'what' was before 'nothing' is twofold: 1. 'Nothing' is just an unknown entity to be defined; 2. The fact that there is a universe, and a 'nothing' to precede it, there is an expectation of something from nothing. The 'Big Bang' is akin to a unidimensional singularity, which is essentially how cosmologist define 'nothing'. So what was before this singularity?
    The definition of what was before this 'nothing' is the subject of many cosmogonic theories, whether it is of philosophical, mystical, religious, or secular origin. However, there is no known language or relationship that can bridge this enigma of infinites that would surely present a better sense that which 'is' and 'is not' at the same time. One book series that explores this very subject is 'The Evolutioning of Creation: Volume 1' and 'The Evolutioning of Creation: Volume 2' .
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    KC Strom said:
    So, there is a theory that "our" universe began when a black hole in a separate universe "opened" and matter started streaming through. Who knows...

    That theory makes sense to me. Do you know who the originator of that theory is? I thought of that myself one day and I was wondering who actually came up with that.
    Reply
  • Reb Duvid
    "Like pimples"? Was the editor asleep?
    Reply
  • Stephen J. Bauer
    Stephen J. Bauer said:
    Truthseeker007 said:
    That theory makes sense to me. Do you know who the originator of that theory is? I thought of that myself one day and I was wondering who actually came up with that.
    As this theory has been around since the latter part of the 20th century, I do not find the concept of torsion geometry enough to convince me that we are living in a nesting of omnipresent black holes. The scale makes no sense. If it were possible that our universe began when a black hole in a separate universe 'opened', then we are expected to believe that there can be a consecutive chain of infinitely dense black holes, one inside of the other, all interdependent upon each other but then independent of each other's energy/total information. Should that even be probably, what is the origin of the first black hole?

    Besides, the only way such a hypothesis would work is via a wormhole link to a white hole, so it would not be working against the tide of gravitational acceleration, somewhat like the promoted unidimensional singularity of the 'Big Bang'. Note that the maximally extended version of Schwarzschild solution describes an idealized black hole/white hole that exists 'eternally'(infinitely) from the perspective of external observers. The other side of the wormhole bridge becomes a new, growing baby universe. For observers in the baby universe, the parent universe would only appear as the 'Big Bang' of this white hole. Theorizing upon the equations of general relativity as time-reversible , general relativity must also allow for the time-reverse of this type of eternal black hole, that formed from collapsing matter. The time-reversed case would be a white hole that has existed since the beginning of the universe, and which emits matter until it finally explodes and disappears. Accordingly, the observable universe is created the Einstein–Rosen wormhole interior of a black hole existing as one of possibly many inside a larger universe.

    The possibility of the existence of white holes was put forward by Russian cosmologist Igor Novikov in 1964. White holes are predicted as part of a solution to the Einstein field equations known as the maximally extended version of the Schwarzschild calculations describing an eternal black hole with no charge and no rotation. The theory of wormholes goes back to 1916, shortly after Einstein published his general theory, when Ludwig Flamm, an obscure Austrian physicist, looked at the simplest possible solution of Einstein's field equations, known as the Schwarzschild solution (or Schwarzschild metric).A 1935 idea from Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen for unifying electromagnetism with gravity lives on in the minds of science fiction fans, which became known as an "Einstein-Rosen bridge" or Schwarzschild wormhole.

    Why anyone would buy into the hypothetical of an ability to detect a wormhole confuses me. The expectation of trying to tie a black hole and a white hole together by the possibility of their proximity to each other does not in anyway demonstrate the existence of the fabled wormhole (which only exists in the fringe of mathematical theories). A proposed quantum entanglement of a black hole and a white hole together belies the nature of black holes in and of themselves. While the movie 'Interstellar' tried to promote this sci-fi notion first by having us believe that any ordinary matter could make it beyond the event horizon of black hole 1, and then secondly that ordinary matter could reintegrate outside the event horizon of black hole 2 .

    This is similar to the improbability of the multiverse concept, wherein we try to account for every possible space-time line scenario to rationalize our philosophical view of existence. These are merely contorted thought experiments, like wormholes and time travel, to get around the concepts of an evolving universe from within a medium of dark energy, i.e., the nothingness. The information is consistently morphing between the forms of energy and matter in the multidimensional environment of its evolving existence. It is the convergence of space and time by degrees that governs any one' particular perspective. If you're interested in exploring how this is all orchestrated in the grander scheme of the universe, you can review the alternative theories presented in the book, 'The Evolutioning of Creation: Volume 2', or even in the reimagined ramifications of these concepts in the
    sci-fi novel, 'Shadow-Forge Revelations'.
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    Stephen J. Bauer said:
    As this theory has been around since the latter part of the 20th century, I do not find the concept of torsion geometry enough to convince me that we are living in a nesting of omnipresent black holes. The scale makes no sense. If it were possible that our universe began when a black hole in a separate universe 'opened', then we are expected to believe that there can be a consecutive chain of infinitely dense black holes, one inside of the other, all interdependent upon each other but then independent of each other's energy/total information. Should that even be probably, what is the origin of the first black hole?

    Besides, the only way such a hypothesis would work is via a wormhole link to a white hole, so it would not be working against the tide of gravitational acceleration, somewhat like the promoted unidimensional singularity of the 'Big Bang'. Note that the maximally extended version of Schwarzschild solution describes an idealized black hole/white hole that exists 'eternally'(infinitely) from the perspective of external observers. The other side of the wormhole bridge becomes a new, growing baby universe. For observers in the baby universe, the parent universe would only appear as the 'Big Bang' of this white hole. Theorizing upon the equations of general relativity as time-reversible , general relativity must also allow for the time-reverse of this type of eternal black hole, that formed from collapsing matter. The time-reversed case would be a white hole that has existed since the beginning of the universe, and which emits matter until it finally explodes and disappears. Accordingly, the observable universe is created the Einstein–Rosen wormhole interior of a black hole existing as one of possibly many inside a larger universe.

    The possibility of the existence of white holes was put forward by Russian cosmologist Igor Novikov in 1964. White holes are predicted as part of a solution to the Einstein field equations known as the maximally extended version of the Schwarzschild calculations describing an eternal black hole with no charge and no rotation. The theory of wormholes goes back to 1916, shortly after Einstein published his general theory, when Ludwig Flamm, an obscure Austrian physicist, looked at the simplest possible solution of Einstein's field equations, known as the Schwarzschild solution (or Schwarzschild metric).A 1935 idea from Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen for unifying electromagnetism with gravity lives on in the minds of science fiction fans, which became known as an "Einstein-Rosen bridge" or Schwarzschild wormhole.

    Why anyone would buy into the hypothetical of an ability to detect a wormhole confuses me. The expectation of trying to tie a black hole and a white hole together by the possibility of their proximity to each other does not in anyway demonstrate the existence of the fabled wormhole (which only exists in the fringe of mathematical theories). A proposed quantum entanglement of a black hole and a white hole together belies the nature of black holes in and of themselves. While the movie 'Interstellar' tried to promote this sci-fi notion first by having us believe that any ordinary matter could make it beyond the event horizon of black hole 1, and then secondly that ordinary matter could reintegrate outside the event horizon of black hole 2 .

    This is similar to the improbability of the multiverse concept, wherein we try to account for every possible space-time line scenario to rationalize our philosophical view of existence. These are merely contorted thought experiments, like wormholes and time travel, to get around the concepts of an evolving universe from within a medium of dark energy, i.e., the nothingness. The information is consistently morphing between the forms of energy and matter in the multidimensional environment of its evolving existence. It is the convergence of space and time by degrees that governs any one' particular perspective. If you're interested in exploring how this is all orchestrated in the grander scheme of the universe, you can review the alternative theories presented in the book, 'The Evolutioning of Creation: Volume 2', or even in the reimagined ramifications of these concepts in the
    sci-fi novel, 'Shadow-Forge Revelations'.

    That is all very interesting and thanks for the input. Maybe the problem is we make the universe very complicated when it shouldn't be. Is nature complicated? Isn't the universe nature also? I think what would make sense the most is most likely the case. And I don't think it is the religious version of the universe or the big bang but maybe a little bit in between. It's seems to me that some science likes to overcomplicate things with these big terms that nobody understands. They are so worried about the wording that they never figure out the real truth.
    Reply