More evidence points to a fully-formed universe very soon after the beginning.
Using the magnifying glass of a gravitational lens, astronomers at Johns Hopkins University have located “a galaxy dating back to a mere 500 million years after the big bang,” reported Science Magazine (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “Warped Light Reveals Infant Galaxy on the Brink of the ‘Cosmic Dawn’,” Science 21 September 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6101 p. 1442, DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6101.1442). The discovery was announced in the rival journal across the pond, Nature (Wei Zheng et al., “A magnified young galaxy from about 500 million years after the Big Bang,” Nature 489, 20 September 2012, pp. 406–408, doi:10.1038/nature11446).
This is the latest of a trend to find mature structures closer and closer to the big bang – leaving cosmologists little time to go from random particles to “lumpy” structures like stars and galaxies (see links in commentary below). This galaxy’s redshift (z = 9.6) is a record, indicating it existed close to the beginning: “Light from the primordial galaxy traveled approximately 13.2 billion light-years before reaching NASA’s telescopes,” PhysOrg stated. “In other words, the starlight snagged by Spitzer and Hubble left the galaxy when the universe was just 3.6 percent of its present age.” Even so, the galaxy was estimated by the astronomers at 200 million years old. This implies its formation was even earlier. The original paper in Nature said,
We estimate that it formed less than 200 million years after the Big Bang (at the 95 per cent confidence level), implying a formation redshift of ≲14. Given the small sky area that our observations cover, faint galaxies seem to be abundant at such a young cosmic age, suggesting that they may be the dominant source for the early re-ionization of the intergalactic medium.
Modern cosmological theory places an “epoch of re-ionization” after the first generation of stars that ionized the interstellar medium. Something with enough energy broke up the hydrogen gas into protons and electrons. Nature’s paper was pretty straightforward, explaining how the discovery was made and the math used to determine its redshift, etc. But Science Magazine took the occasion to point out substantial gaps in current cosmological theory:
In the timeline of cosmic evolution, the galaxy represents an era that is still filled with mystery. The universe was a soup of hot plasma for a few hundred thousand years after the big bang. Then the electrons and protons in the soup combined to form hydrogen. The first stars and galaxies are believed to have been born some 300 million years after the big bang. Over the next 700 million years or so, something re ionized the universe, breaking its hydrogen back into electrons and protons.
Studies of the cosmic microwave background have broadly confirmed this timeline. But key early details are missing, including what led to the reionization. Many astrophysicists have suggested that ultra violet (UV) radiation from early galaxies may have played an important role.
Nature probably did not have time to incorporate the latest findings from the South Pole Telescope, reported by PhysOrg. Astronomers now put the epoch of re-ionization earlier and shorter than previously thought – between 250 and 500 million years after the big bang, not 750 or more. Assuming stars were involved in the re-ionization, this implies “First Stars, Galaxies Formed More Rapidly Than Expected.” The article explained the implications:
The epoch’s short duration indicates that reionization was more explosive than scientists had previously thought. It suggests that massive galaxies played a key role in reionization, because smaller galaxies would have formed much earlier.
But if massive galaxies played a key role, it compresses the time available for the first stars to form, the first dwarf galaxies to form, and then the massive galaxies to form. The early birds must have been awesome. They had to be in order to have the energy required for the re-ionization epoch: “The first stars that formed were probably 30 to 300 times more massive than the sun and millions of times as bright, burning for only a few million years before exploding.”
The trend over the last decade has been for observations to exacerbate the lumpiness problem in cosmology (the puzzle that a smooth beginning produced stars, galaxies, clusters, superclusters and other “lumpy” objects, separated by large voids of empty space). Follow the trend with these previous entries:
5/30/01: Cosmologists still lack many basic answers. How did galaxies form? “The details are devilishly difficult to understand.”
6/05/01: Quasar 800 million years after big bang. It’s going to turn a great number of astronomical theories on their head and confirm others.”
1/08/02: Universe began with fireworks grand finale. The idea that “the fireworks ran backwards… is not at all intuitively what one would have predicted.”
1/23/04: Should cosmologists get worried yet? “It’s not quite time for theorists to panic, but we’re getting there,” said astronomer Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto, Canada, after announcing his group’s discovery of a startling number of mature galaxies in the young universe.”
10/14/05: Old man in the stellar maternity ward. “These chunky babies may be pointing to a cosmic crisis. They don’t seem to fit the leading theory of galaxy formation, which cosmologists have relied on for more than 2 decades.…”
8/18/06: Early spiral resembles Milky Way. It is also puzzling that the most massive galaxies were more abundant and were forming stars more rapidly at early epochs than expected from models.”
9/24/06: Mature galaxy 700 million years after big bang. “The simplest explanation is that the Universe is just too young to have built up many luminous galaxies at z approximately ~7–8 by the hierarchical merging of small galaxies.”
12/08/09: Hubble Ultra Deep Field. “600 million years after the Big Bang. No galaxies have been seen before at such early times.”
12/17/10: Whopping celestial baby boom revealed in early universe. “The new glimpse of such a productive early universe – seen as it looked 3 billion years after the Big Bang – may change the way scientists think about star formation.”
3/09/11: Young galaxy cluster already mature. “Surprise! Ancient Galaxy Cluster Still Looks Young.”
4/14/11: Mature galaxy with old stars 950 million years after big bang pushes star formation earlier, suggests “that the first galaxies have been around for a lot longer than previously thought.”
6/17/11: Clumpiness of distant universe surprises astronomers: twice the clumpiness per unit distance found than was predicted.
1/11/12: Cosmologists forced to “In the Beginning.” — “serious threats to our existing understanding of the cosmos.”Other examples
Look through the Cosmology links for other examples. Upsets are common, confirmations of theory are not. Secular cosmologists did not expect to find early maturity, like old men in a maternity ward — but they did. Remember these stories when someone tries to pull a scientism bluff on you.