For the first time, astronomers have discovered clouds of pristine gas in the distant universe about 12 billion light-years away, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The finding offers a peek at what primordial gas looked like just a few minutes after the big bang, before heavier elements formed — a time when star formation was very different than it is today.
These clouds—long gone by now, but still visible to us—contain lighter elements like hydrogen and helium, which condensed into stars during the first few hundred million years of the universe.
The earliest stars “must have looked very different from stars formed today — they would be much bigger and very short-lived,” said Robert Simcoe, an astronomer at MIT who was not involved in the study.
“We have not seen those stars, but if they were going to form, this would be the kind of gas from which they’d form.”
The gas clouds, which appear — surprisingly — to have survived for about 2 billion years after the big bang almost 14 billion years ago, were discovered through looking at the light from distant quasars, some of the brightest objects in the universe.
The stars eventually forged heavier elements through nuclear fusion, then exploded and spread throughout the universe—seeding fresh gas clouds that eventually became the stars we know today.
Scientists are a little rattled by the find, saying they thought such early gas clouds had dispersed too long ago to be visible. Maybe, they say, they’ll have to reevaluate how matter moves between galaxies and throughout the universe.
Clouds like these, full of hydrogen and helium, often serve as cradles for star formation as the gases condense. They generally contain heavier elements such as carbon, silicon and oxygen, which are needed for gases to coalesce into the kinds of stars we know today.
In this case, unlike any cloud scientists had seen before, the clouds contained no absorption lines for these heavier elements, according to a study released this week by the journal Science. This implied that the gas clouds could be very primitive in nature.
Many scientists believed that they had not found any pristine gas clouds left over from those earlier times because the heavier elements from those first stars had been thoroughly dispersed throughout the universe.
“It was surprising to see, after two billion years, the gas was not polluted, left untouched,” said lead author Michele Fumagalli, an astronomer at UC Santa Cruz.
The researchers cannot pin down the size of the gas clouds. And they’re not sure how common such clouds may be.
But, Fumagalli said, if they are more common than thought, it means the heavy elements didn’t disperse as totally or equally as believed; this, in turn, would require a reevaluation of what scientists think they know about how matter flows between galaxies and through the universe. [via The Los Angles Times]