Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

This post begins a four-part photographic journey into the history of our universe! Read on to explore the key events that led to the formation of our provincial parks and the natural world in which we live.

Have you ever looked up at the starry sky and wondered “how did it all begin?”

Today we will discuss the origins of the universe, the evolution of galaxies and globular clusters, and conclude with a history of the first stars and supernovae.

Stay tuned for Part II, where we detail how stars are born and live, Part III with the formation of planets and our solar system, and finally, in Part IV, we will discuss the future of the Sun and the largest stars.

So let’s start with our origin story!

The origins of the universe.

There are many ways to explain “the beginning” and all explanations are valuable.

These explanations are neither right nor wrong, but they offer us different perspectives and provide new insights into how the universe began.

people watching the northern lights

These different perspectives force us to question our assumptions and ask difficult questions that ultimately lead to greater understanding.

Agreed scientific understanding holds that about 13.77 billion years ago, a singularity (a point in dimensionless space but possessing incredible mass and heat) erupted and expanded, forming the universe as we know it.

The field of cosmology serves to try to understand the origins and subsequent evolution of this “Big Bang” in exquisite detail, much more complex than what is required here. Those interested can investigate further by searching the numerous academic sources online, as well as NASA and ESA.

Photo: ESA/Planck Collaboration

In the image above from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, the remnants of the Big Bang can still be seen as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) that exists everywhere in the sky.

Red indicates lower energies and temperatures (higher densities), while blue represents higher energies and temperatures (lower densities). The galaxies, containing billions of stars, formed within the densest (red) regions.

About 1% of the “snow” seen on an untuned television is due to energy that originated during the Big Bang. The next time you watch an untuned television, remember that you are watching particles going back in time to the beginning.

the first stars

The early universe was filled primarily with hydrogen and deuterium, which eventually produced some helium and a small amount of lithium… but that was it.

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There were no other elements to speak of. There is no carbon to form organic compounds, no oxygen to join with hydrogen to produce water, and no calcium to form the backbone of animals.

That would have to wait for later.

Astronomers believe that, with virtually only hydrogen available, the first stars were supermassive balls of hydrogen that grew to immense sizes. These extraordinarily large stars may have been more than a hundred times more massive than our Sun.

A few hundred million years after the Big Bang, stars, gas and dark matter formed galaxies, which can contain hundreds of billions of stars.

Stars also became objects significantly smaller than galaxies, known as globular clusters, containing more than hundreds of thousands of stars.

the galaxies

The first galaxies began to form more than 13 billion years ago and have been evolving and interacting ever since.

About 2.54 million light years away is the Andromeda galaxy, the closest large galaxy to us.

In it we can see many of the details that astronomers believe exist within our own Milky Way. The central part of the galaxy is known as the core or central bulge. This, along with the inner spiral arms, tends to contain many yellower stars.

Looking outwards past the central bulge, we come to the bluer outer spiral arms.

We will discuss the reason for these different types of star colors in our November update!

galaxyPhoto: M31, the “Andromeda Galaxy” imaged by the 0.13 meter refractor in the Kchi Waasa Debaabing dome of the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory Complex

In the image above, the Andromeda galaxy stands proudly in the foreground, with two companion galaxies on either side.

M32 is on the top right side and M110 (NGC205) is located towards the bottom center right. These galaxies are gravitationally affecting the Andromeda galaxy by distorting its shape and characteristics.

Our Milky Way, along with the Andromeda Galaxy and many other galaxies, form what astronomers call the “Local Group” of galaxies.

The Milky Way is believed to have formed about 13.5 billion years ago. It is more than 100,000 light years in diameter and about 1,000 light years thick, and contains up to 400 billion stars.

Our solar system is located approximately half the distance from the center of the Milky Way and takes about 250 million years to complete one orbit. The visible universe is believed to contain more than 1 trillion galaxies!

Globular star clusters

Orbiting massive galaxies like bees in a hive are globular clusters.

In this zoomed-in section of the Andromeda Galaxy below, we have circled a globular cluster (G114) that is just one of hundreds of globulars around the Andromeda Galaxy.

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Globular star clusters are gravitationally bound groupings with tens of thousands to millions of stars.

Although their formation is not well understood, we do know that globular star clusters orbit the centers of their host galaxies. Its globule shape is the result of the tremendous gravitational attraction of all the stars towards each other.

M13, the “Great Hercules Cluster”, captured in the image below, is located 22,000 light years from Earth, making it about 100 times closer than G114.

Our first intentional transmission of a message to any location outside our solar system was sent by a radio telescope in 1974. However, given its distance and the time to send a response message, even at the speed of light we may have to wait 44,000 years to hear any answer if life were there and capable of responding!

star clusterImage: M13, the “Hercules Globular Star Cluster” imaged by the 0.41 meter refractor in the Kchi Waasa Debaabing dome of the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory Complex

After the moon and planets, M13 tends to be one of the first objects that amateur astronomers find. It is easy to see with binoculars and spectacular with telescopes in the dark skies of our parks.

What happened to those first stars?

Stars convert hydrogen into thermonuclear fuel producing…

  • helium
  • oxygen
  • nitrogen
  • sodium
  • silicon

…among other elements, including iron!

At the end of their lives, these massive stars exploded in supernovae or hypernovae that tore them apart.

The layer of debris brought the newly formed elements with it to the nearby interstellar medium, thus seeding space for the next generation of stars.

nebulaImage: The “Veil Nebula” photographed with a 0.06 meter refractor in the Kchi Waasa Debaabing Dome of the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory Complex

Supernovas are amazing events and can eclipse an entire galaxy for a few weeks.

The supernova shock wave propagates in all directions and charges the gases that exist between the stars. This charged gas glows red and is quite spectacular if photographed with the right equipment.

The image above shows the Veil Nebula that was created from a supernova that exploded between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

That’s it for our first edition of our astronomical journey!

Do you want to continue reading?

To continue the story of our astronomical origins, here are the other installments of From the Big Bang to our provincial parks and beyond:

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all astronomical images used for this series were taken with equipment at one of our two observatories in Killarney Provincial Park; Waasa Debaabing, “see far (as far as the eye can see)” and Kchi waasa Debaabing, “see far away (as far as the eye can see).”