When Did The Universe Become Transparent To Light?
“The Universe became transparent to the light left over from the Big Bang when it was roughly 380,000 years old, and remained transparent to long-wavelength light thereafter. But it was only when the Universe reached about half a billion years of age that it became fully transparent to starlight, with some locations experiencing transparency earlier and others experiencing it later.
To probe beyond these limits requires a telescope that goes to longer and longer wavelengths. With any luck, the James Webb Space Telescope will finally open our eyes to the Universe as it was during this in-between era, where it’s transparent to the Big Bang’s glow but not to starlight. When it opens its eyes on the Universe, we may finally learn just how the Universe grew up during these poorly-understood dark ages.”
There are two ways that astrophysicists talk about the Universe becoming transparent. The first is when the particles from the Big Bang finally form neutral atoms, becoming “transparent” to the leftover photons from that era. The second is hundreds of millions of years later, when those same neutral atoms are reionized, and starlight can travel freely through intergalactic space. Which one is right? When did the Universe become transparent to light?
The truth is we need them both, as they make the Universe transparent to different types of light. Come get the full story today.
What Was It Like When Starlight First Broke Through The Universe’s Neutral Atoms?
“The light created in the earliest era of stars and galaxies all plays a role. The ultraviolet light works to ionize the matter around it, enabling visible light to progressively farther and farther as the ionization fraction increases. The visible light gets scattered in all directions until reionization has gotten far enough to enable our best telescopes today to see it. But the infrared light, also created by the stars, passes through even the neutral matter, giving our 2020s-era telescopes a chance to find them.
When starlight breaks through the sea of neutral atoms, even before reionization completes, it gives us a chance to detect the earliest objects we’ll ever have seen. When the James Webb Space Telescope launches, that will be the first thing we look for. The most distant reaches of the Universe are within our view. We just have to look and find out what’s truly out there.”
Something existing in our Universe is not quite the same as something being detectable in our Universe. We know that, at some point in our past, we created the first generation of stars, the second generation of stars, and the very first galaxies to exist in our Universe. But in order to detect them, there has to be some way for that light to travel through the Universe to our observatories and telescopes monitoring the skies today. There’s an obstacle standing in the way of that, though: the neutral atoms formed just hundreds of thousands of years after the Big Bang. When the first hints of starlight begin permeating through space, they encounter these neutral atoms, which largely thwarts them. It takes hundreds of millions of years for starlight to win.
But with enough persistence and star-formation, the light will eventually break through. Come get the cosmic story of how this all actually happens!
What Was It Like When The First Stars Began Illuminating The Universe?
“After the Big Bang, the Universe was dark for millions upon millions of years; after the glow of the Big Bang fades away, there’s nothing that human eyes could see. But when the first wave of star formation happens, growing in a cosmic crescendo across the visible Universe, starlight struggles to get out. The fog of neutral atoms permeating all of space absorbs most of it, but gets ionized in the process. Some of this reionized matter will become neutral again, emitting light when it does, including the 21-cm line over timescales of ~10 million years.
But it takes far more than the very first stars to truly turn on the lights in the Universe. For that, we need more than just the first stars; we need them to live, burn through their fuel, die, and give rise to so much more. The first stars aren’t the end; they’re the beginning of the cosmic story that gives rise to us.”
We like to think of the Universe evolving as a story that follows a particular order: first we had the Big Bang, then things expanded and cooled, then gravitation pulled things into clumps, we formed stars, they lived and died, and now here we are. But in reality, things are messier than that! The very first stars didn’t immediately spread light throughout the Universe, but instead had a cosmic ocean of neutral atoms to contend with: one that they weren’t energetic enough or numerous enough to break through. The first stars in the Universe fought a battle against the clumping, neutral, atomic-based matter that surrounded them… and lost.
Come get the valiant but ultimately unsuccessful story of the first stars in the Universe, and learn why “letting there be light” didn’t illuminate the Universe!
First Stars Formed No Later Than 250 Million Years After The Big Bang, With Direct Proof
“We see MACS1149-JD1 as it was 530 million years after the Big Bang, while inside, it has a special signature: oxygen. Oxygen is only produced by previous generations of stars, indicating that this galaxy is already old.
MACS1149-JD1 was imaged with microwave (ALMA), infrared (Spitzer), and optical (Hubble) data combined.
The results indicate that stars existed nearly 300 million years before our observations.”
One of the great quests of astronomers today is to measure and locate the very first stars in the Universe. As far back as Hubble can see, to when the Universe was just 3-5% its current age, the Universe is still full of galaxies, even though they’re smaller and bluer than the ones we have today. But within these galaxies, we can also find evidence that the stars in there aren’t the very first ones; they contain evidence for prior generations of stars in their spectral signatures. From the second-most distant galaxy ever discovered, itself just 530 million years after the Big Bang, we see evolved stars. They indicate that the very first ones formed no later than 250 million years after the Big Bang.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see that far! In less than 3 years, we’ll peer beyond where we’ve ever seen before. And there will no doubt be something breathtaking to look at.
Astronomers Confirm Second Most-Distant Galaxy Ever, And Its Stars Are Already Old
“Scientists have just confirmed the second most distant galaxy of all: MACS1149-JD1, whose light comes from when the Universe was 530 million years old: less than 4% of its present age. But what’s remarkable is that we’ve been able to detect oxygen in there, marking the first time we’ve seen this heavy element so far back. From the observations we’ve made, we can conclude this galaxy is at least 250 million years old, pushing the direct evidence for the first stars back further than ever.”
When it comes to the most distant galaxies of all, our current set of cutting-edge telescopes simply won’t get us there. The end of the cosmic dark ages and the dawn of the first cosmic starlight is a mystery that will remain until at least 2020: when the James Webb Space Telescope launches. Using the power of a multitude of observatories, we’ve managed to find a gravitationally lensed galaxy whose light comes to us from over 13 billion years ago. But unlike previous galaxies discovered near that distance, we’ve detected oxygen in this one, allowing us to get a precise measurement and to estimate its age.
For the first time, we have evidence from galaxies, directly, that the Universe’s first stars formed no later than 250 million years after the Big Bang. Here’s how we know.
Ask Ethan: Why Was The Universe Dark For So Long?
“One thing I wonder though is why did the dark ages last hundreds of millions of years? I would have expected an order of magnitude smaller, or more.”
There’s a troubling puzzle when it comes to the Universe: the so-called ‘dark ages’ don’t come to an end until 550 million years after the Big Bang. But this is a big problem when you consider that we’ve already imaged a galaxy from when the Universe was only 400 million years old, and that we fully anticipate the first stars to form when the Universe is only 50-100 million years old. So what’s with all the darkness, then? And how do we expect the James Webb Space Telescope to see back to the very first galaxies? The answer lies in two parts. First, even though you have stars, the Universe is still filled with neutral atoms, which block visible and ultraviolet light. We need to ionize those atoms in order to have a transparent Universe, and that takes lots of time. But the second key is that the Universe, even with neutral atoms, is quite transparent to other wavelengths of light, like infrared light. And that’s where an observatory like James Webb is going to be looking!
The Universe was dark for so long because it doesn’t just need light, it needs for all the light-blocking material to disappear. But we’re going to overcome that obstacle in less than two years anyway, and that’s something we should all be excited about!