The discovery of a 13 billion-year-old cosmic cloud of gas enabled a team of Carnegie astronomers to perform the earliest-ever measurement of how the universe was enriched with a diversity of chemical elements. Their findings reveal that the first generation of stars formed more quickly than previously thought. The research, led by recent Carnegie-Princeton fellow Eduardo Bañados and including Carnegie’s Michael Rauch and Tom Cooper, is published by The Astrophysical Journal.
The Big Bang started the universe as a hot, murky soup of extremely energetic particles that was rapidly expanding. As this material spread out, it cooled, and the particles coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas. The universe stayed dark, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies.
All stars, including this first generation, act as chemical factories, synthesizing almost all of the elements that make up the world around us. When the original stars exploded as supernovae, they spewed out the elements that they created, seeding the surrounding gas. Subsequent generations of stars incorporated these elements and steadily increased the chemical abundances of their surroundings.
But the first stars formed in a still pristine, cold universe. Consequently these initial stars produced elements in different proportions than those synthesized by younger stars, which were formed in an environment that was already enriched by earlier generations.
“Looking back in time far enough, one may expect cosmic gas clouds to show the tell-tale signature of the peculiar element ratios made by the first stars,” said Rauch. “Peering even further back, we may ultimately witness the disappearance of most elements and the emergence of pristine gas.”
Astronomers have long used quasars to learn about the chemical composition of cosmic gas over time, showing how different generations of stars enrich their surroundings.
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