The Early Radio Universe

As the expanding universe cooled, the first neutral1 hydrogen atoms formed about 380,000 years after the Big Bang (ABB), and most of the hydrogen in the universe remained neutral until the first stars began forming at least 65 million years ABB.

The period of time from 380,000 to 65 million years or so ABB is referred to as the “dark ages” since at the beginning of this period the cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang had redshifted from visible light to infrared so the universe was truly dark (in visible light) until the first stars began to form at the end of this period.

All the while, neutral hydrogen atoms occasionally undergo a “spin-flip” transition where the electron transitions from the higher-energy hyperfine level of the ground state to the lower-energy hyperfine level, and a microwave photon of wavelength 21.1061140542 cm and frequency 1420.4057517667 MHz is emitted.

Throughout the dark ages, the 21 cm emission line was being emitted by the abundant neutral hydrogen throughout the universe, but as the universe continued to expand the amount of cosmological redshift between the time of emission and the present day has been constantly changing. The longer ago the 21 cm emission occurred, the greater the redshift to longer wavelengths. We thus have a great way to map the universe during this entire epoch by looking at the “spectrum” of redshifts of this particular spectral line.

380,000 and 65 million years ABB correspond to a cosmological redshift (z) of 1,081 and 40, respectively. We can calculate what the observed wavelength and frequency of the 21 cm line would be for the beginning and end of the dark ages.

\lambda _{obs} = (z+1)\cdot \lambda_{emit}


The observed wavelength (λobs) for the 21 cm line (λemit) at redshift (z) of 1,081 using the above equation gives us 22,836.8 cm or 228.4 meters.

\nu = \frac{c}{\lambda }


That gives us a frequency (ν) of 1.3 MHz (using the equation above), where the speed of light c = 299,792,458 meters per second.

So a 21 cm line emitted 380,000 years ABB will be observed to have a wavelength of 228.4 m and a frequency of 1.3 MHz.

Using the same equations, we find that a 21 cm line emitted 65 Myr ABB will be observed to have a wavelength of 8.7 m and a frequency of 34.7 MHz.

We thus will be quite interested in taking a detailed look at radio waves in the entire frequency range 1.3 – 34.7 MHz, with corresponding wavelengths from 228.4 m down to 8.7 m.2

The interference from the Earth’s ionosphere and the ever-increasing cacophony of humanity’s radio transmissions makes observing these faint radio signals all but impossible from anywhere on or near the Earth. Radio astronomers and observational cosmologists are planning to locate radio telescopes on the far side of the Moon—both on the surface and in orbit above it—where the entire mass of the Moon will effectively block all terrestrial radio interference. There we will finally hear the radio whispers of matter before the first stars formed.

1 By “neutral” we mean hydrogen atoms where the electron has not been ionized and resides in the ground state—not an excited state.

2 Incidentally, the 2.7 K cosmic microwave background radiation which is the “afterglow” of the Big Bang itself at the beginning of the dark ages (380,000 years ABB), peaks at a frequency between 160 and 280 GHz and a wavelength around 1 – 2 mm. So this is a much higher frequency and shorter wavelength than the redshifted 21 cm emissions we are proposing to observe here.

References

Ananthaswamy, Anil, “The View from the Far Side of the Moon”, Scientific American, April 2021, pp. 60-63. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/telescopes-on-far-side-of-the-moon-could-illuminate-the-cosmic-dark-ages1/

Burns, Jack O., et al., “Global 21-cm Cosmology from the Farside of the Moon”, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2103/2103.05085.pdf

Koopmans, Léon, et al., “Peering into the Dark (Ages) with Low-Frequency Space Interferometers”, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1908/1908.04296.pdf

Ned Wright’s Javascript Cosmology Calculator, http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~wright/CosmoCalc.html

Homogeneity and Isotropy

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

4.2.2 Indirect determination: justifying a Friedmann-Lemaître geometry
Considered on a large enough angular scale, astronomical observations are very nearly isotropic about us, both as regards source observations and background radiation; indeed the latter is spectacularly isotropic, better than one part in 104 after a dipole anisotropy, understood as resulting from our motion relative to the rest frame of the universe, has been removed.

No matter what direction we look, the universe looks statistically the same at a scale of hundreds of millions of light years.  We call this property isotropy.  Case in point: when compared one to the other, the Hubble Deep Fields look remarkably similar, even though they are about 135° apart in the sky.

Hubble eXtreme Deep Field in the constellation Fornax

Hubble Deep Field in the constellation Ursa Major

Taken individually, both of these deep fields also exhibit homogeneity, that is, they generally show a fairly uniform distribution of galaxies across the field.

Does the dipole anisotropy in the cosmic background radiation (CBR), due to our motion with respect the rest frame of the universe, indicate an absolute frame of reference?  Not at all.  Though the rest frame of the universe is the preferred frame for cosmology, it is not a particularly good frame of reference to use, for example, in describing the motion of the planets in our solar system.  The laws of physics are the same in all inertial (unaccelerated) reference frames, so none of them can be “special”—or absolute.  An absolute frame of reference would be one in which the laws of physics would be different—indeed simpler—but no such reference frame exists.  And any non-inertial (accelerated) reference frame indicates there is an external force outside the system acting on the system, so it can never be used as an absolute frame of reference.

We’re moving toward Leo and away from Aquarius, relative to the cosmic background radiation

Top: CBR with nothing subtracted; Middle: CBR with dipole anisotropy subtracted; Bottom: CBR with both dipole anisotropy and galactic emission subtracted

Cosmic Background Radiation from the Planck spacecraft with anisotropies removed

If all observers see an isotropic universe, then spatial homogeneity follows; indeed homogeneity follows if only three spatially separated observers see isotropy.  Now we cannot observe the universe from any other point, so we cannot observationally establish that far distant observers see an isotropic universe.  Hence the standard argument is to assume a Copernican Principle: that we are not privileged observers.  This is plausible in that all observable regions of the universe look alike: we see no major changes in conditions anywhere we look.  Combined with the isotropy we see about ourselves, this implies that all observers see an isotropic universe.

The Copernican principle states that we are not privileged observers of the universe.  Any observer elsewhere in the universe will see the same universe that we do.  The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are truly universal.  The Copernican principle is a good example of the application of Occam’s razor: unless there is evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation that fits all the known facts is probably the correct one.

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Beginnings, Quantum Gravity, and Inflation

We continue our series on the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

2.6  Inflation
Particle horizons in inflationary FL models will be much larger than in the standard models with ordinary matter, allowing causal connection of matter on scales larger than the visual horizon, and inflation also will sweep topological defects outside the visible domain.

The particle horizon is the distance beyond which light would have not yet had time to reach us in all the time since the Big Bang.  The visual horizon is the distance beyond which the universe was still opaque to photons due to high temperature and density.  The visual horizon, therefore, is not as far away as the particle horizon.  FL stands for Friedmann-Lemaître, the standard models of a flat, open, or closed universe.

What is inflation?  At the moment of the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe accelerated exponentially for a very short period of time.  This caused portions of space that had been close enough together to be causally connected to become causally disconnected.  While inflation does a very good job of explaining many observed features of our universe, such as its uniformity in all directions, at this point it is an untestable hypothesis (unlike special and general relativity), and the underlying physical principles are completely unknown.

2.7  The very early universe
Quantum gravity processes are presumed to have dominated the very earliest times, preceding inflation.  There are many theories of the quantum origin of the universe, but none has attained dominance.  The problem is that we do not have a good theory of quantum gravity, so all these attempts are essentially different proposals for extrapolating known physics into the unknown.  A key issue is whether quantum effects can remove the initial singularity and make possible universes without a beginning.  Preliminary results suggest that this may be so.

We currently live in a universe where the density may be too low to observe how gravity behaves at the quantum level.  Though we may never be able to build a particle accelerator with energies high enough to explore quantum gravity, quantum gravity might possibly play a detectable role in high-density stars such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes.  At the time of the Big Bang, however, the density of the universe was so high that quantum gravity certainly must have played a role in the subsequent development of our universe.

Do we live in the universe that had no beginning and will have no end?  A universe that is supratemporal—existing outside of time—because it has always existed and always will exist?  Admittedly, this is an idea that appeals to me, but at present it is little more than conjecture, or, perhaps, even wishful thinking.

2.7.1  Is there a quantum gravity epoch?
A key issue is whether the start of the universe was very special or generic.

Will science ever be able to answer this question?  I sincerely hope so.

2.8.1  Some misunderstandings
Two distantly separated fundamental observers in a surface {t = const} can have a relative velocity greater than c if their spatial separation is large enough.  No violation of special relativity is implied, as this is not a local velocity difference, and no information is transferred between distant galaxies moving apart at these speeds.  For example, there is presently a sphere around us of matter receding from us at the speed of light; matter beyond this sphere is moving away from us at a speed greater than the speed of light.  The matter that emitted the CBR was moving away from us at a speed of about 61c when it did so.

Thus, there are (many) places in our universe that are receding from us so fast that light will never have a chance to reach us from there.  Indeed, the cosmic background radiation that pervades our universe today was emitted by matter that was receding from us at 61 times the speed of light at that time.  That matter never was nor ever will be visible to us, but the electromagnetic radiation it emitted then, at the time of decoupling, is everywhere around us.  Think of it as an afterglow.

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]