Astronomers from the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia — working at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaii — have just discovered an incredibly rare fossil cloud of gas that was left behind after the Big Bang occurred, over 14 billion years ago.
As the Daily Mail have reported, this recent discovery marks only the third time that a fossil cloud of this kind has ever been spotted by astronomers, making it a very important find. Astronomers have called the ancient gas cloud “pristine,” and have suggested that it has not changed at all since the Big Bang — remaining an exquisitely untouched relic even after the passing of billions of years.
PhD student Fred Robert and Professor Michael Murphy are responsible for the astonishing discovery of this Big Bang gas cloud. Robert noted that the fossilized cloud should provide useful evidence about the formation of galaxies in the universe, especially as this particular gas cloud, to this day, remains unpolluted.
“Everywhere we look, the gas in the universe is polluted by waste heavy elements from exploding stars. But this particular cloud seems pristine, unpolluted by stars even 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang.”
According to Robert, part of the reason this gas cloud stood out as being so old is because it wasn’t filled with the waste elements that would normally be expected to be found within such clouds.
“If it has any heavy elements at all, it must be less than 1/10,000th of the proportion we see in our Sun. This is extremely low; the most compelling explanation is that it’s a true relic of the Big Bang.”
By using the Keck Observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) and Echellette Spectrograph and Imager (ESI), astronomers were able to locate a quasar that could only have been spotted behind the gas cloud with the help of these two instruments. This quasar was extremely helpful, as it provided just the right amount of light so that the hydrogen within the gas cloud could be picked up.
As Robert stated, “We targeted quasars where previous researchers had only seen shadows from hydrogen and not from heavy elements in lower-quality spectra. This allowed us to discover such a rare fossil quickly with the precious time on Keck Observatory’s twin telescopes.”
The study on the discovery of the fossil gas cloud — which is a remnant of the Big Bang — is set to be published soon in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.