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Starts With A Bang

What is the coldest place in the Universe?

Empty, intergalactic space is just 2.725 K: not even three degrees above absolute zero. But the Boomerang Nebula is even colder.
coldest place in the universe
A color-coded image of the Boomerang Nebula, as taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The gas expelled from this star has expanded incredibly rapidly, causing it to cool adiabatically. There are places within it that are colder than even the leftover glow from the Big Bang itself, reaching a minimum of about ~1 K, or just a third of the temperature of the cosmic microwave background.
(Credit: NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))
Key Takeaways
  • The radiation left over from the hot Big Bang, the Cosmic Microwave Background, bathes all of space in light that heats everything it encounters up to ~2.725 K, including intergalactic space.
  • But right here in our own galaxy, we have a naturally-occurring example of something that’s even colder: the Boomerang Nebula, which has a temperature of just ~1 K.
  • How can something that naturally occurs in the Universe be colder than the Universe itself? The rapid expansion of gas makes it possible.

Imagine the coldest place you possibly can. Inside it, the particles that make up matter move as slowly as you can possibly imagine, approaching the quantum limit of what it means to be truly at rest. There will be no major interior heat sources nearby for those particles inside to absorb; there will be no significant exterior sources of energy heating them up from the outside.

Physically, that means you need to be as far away as possible from all sources of moving particles and radiation. You’d want to be at as great a distance as you could from stars, galaxies, and contracting gas clouds. You’d want to screen out any external sources of photons. If you headed to the deepest recesses of intergalactic space, shielded from starlight, the only thing that would heat you up would be the Big Bang’s leftover glow: the cosmic microwave background at 2.725 K. And yet, our own galaxy has a place — the Boomerang Nebula — that’s even colder than that.

Visible (left) and infrared (right) views of the dust-rich Bok globule, Barnard 68. The infrared light is not blocked nearly as much, as the smaller-sized dust grains (down to about half-a-micron across) are too little to interact with the long-wavelength light. At longer wavelengths, more of the Universe beyond the light-blocking dust can be revealed.
(Credit: ESO)

Anywhere you go in the Universe, there are heat sources to contend with. The farther away you are from all of them, the colder it gets. At a distance of 93 million miles from the Sun, Earth is kept at a modest ~300 K, a temperature that would be nearly 50º cooler if it weren’t for our atmosphere.

Move farther out, and the Sun becomes progressively less and less able to heat things up. Pluto, for instance, is just 44 K: cold enough that liquid nitrogen freezes.

And we can go to an even more isolated place, like interstellar space, where the nearest stars are light years away, and find places in the Universe, even in our own relatively nearby backyard, that are substantially colder.

The Eagle Nebula, famed for its ongoing star formation, contains a large number of Bok globules, or dark nebulae, which have not yet evaporated and are working to collapse and form new stars before they disappear entirely. These cold, dark places in space, particularly when no star-formation has occurred inside of them, can frequently achieve temperatures ranging from 10-30 K, making them some of the coldest locations inside a galaxy.
Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA

There are cold molecular clouds that roam, isolated, throughout the galaxy. In terms of temperature, they’re even colder than the farthest worlds we can find in our Solar System: just 10 K to 20 K above absolute zero.

As stars, supernovae, cosmic rays, stellar winds, and more all provide energy to the galaxy as a whole, it’s hard to get much cooler than that within the Milky Way. Only in intergalactic space, millions of light-years from the nearest stars, will the cosmic microwave background be the only heat source that matters. After all, the Big Bang occurred everywhere in space all at once, and the radiation left over from it simply travels, omnidirectionally, at the speed of light. As the Universe expands, that radiation cools, but we can still see it today, as it arrives at our eyes after a journey of some 13.8 billion years through time and space.

According to the original observations of Penzias and Wilson, the galactic plane emitted some astrophysical sources of radiation (center), but above and below, all that remained was a near-perfect, uniform background of radiation. The temperature and spectrum of this radiation has now been measured, and the agreement with the Big Bang’s predictions are extraordinary. If we could see microwave light with our eyes, the entire night sky would look like the green oval shown.
Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

At less than 3 ºC (5 ºF) above absolute zero, these barely-detectable photons are the only heat source around. Since every location in the Universe is constantly bombarded by these infrared, microwave and radio photons, you might think that 2.725 K is the coldest you can ever get in nature. To experience something colder, you’d have to wait for the Universe to expand more, stretch the wavelengths of these photons, and cool down to an even lower temperature.

This will happen, of course, in time. By time the Universe is twice as old as it is today — in another 13.8 billion years — the temperature will be just barely a single degree above absolute zero. But there’s a place you can look, right now, that’s colder than even the deepest depths of intergalactic space.

coldest place in the Universe
The Boomerang Nebula is a young, still-forming planetary nebula, and also the coldest location known in the Universe so far.
(Credit: ESA/NASA)

You don’t even need to go anywhere special! This is the Boomerang Nebula, located just 5,000 light years away in our own galaxy. In 1980, when it was first observed from Australia, it looked like a two-lobed, asymmetrical nebula, and hence it was given the name “Boomerang” as a result. Better observations have shown us this nebula for what it really is: a preplanetary nebula, which is an intermediate stage in a dying, Sun-like star’s life.

All Sun-like stars will evolve into red giants and end their lives in a planetary nebula/white dwarf combination, where the outer layers are blown off and the central core contracts down to a hot, degenerate state. But in between the red giant and the planetary nebula phases, there’s the preplanetary nebula phase.

The preplanetary nebula IRAS 2006+84051 is hotter than the Boomerang Nebula, but, like the Boomerang Nebula, represents an intermediate phase between a red giant and the eventual planetary nebula/white dwarf stage.
(Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA)

Before the internal temperature of the star heats up, but after the expulsion of the outer layers begins, we get a preplanetary nebula. Sometimes in a sphere, but more often in two, bipolar jets, the ejecta make their way out of the star’s local vicinity, extending beyond the stellar system itself, and well into the interstellar medium.

This phase is short-lived: it lasts only a few thousand years.

There are only a dozen or so stars that are found to be in this phase. But the Boomerang Nebula is special among them. Its gas gets expelled about ten times faster than normal: moving at about 164 km/s. It loses its mass at a higher rate than normal: about two Neptune’s worth of material every year. And as a result of all of this, it’s the coldest natural place in the known Universe, with some portions of the nebula coming in at just 0.5 K: half a degree above absolute zero, which can be measured with very long-wavelength light.

coldest place in the Universe
A millimeter-wavelength view of the Boomerang Nebula, with radio data overlayed atop a pale visible light view of this region of space.

Every other planetary and preplanetary nebula is much, much hotter than this, but the physics underlying why is some of the simplest of all to understand. Inhale a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and then let it out. You can do this two different ways, holding your hand about 6″ (15 cm) away from your mouth both times.

  1. Exhale with your mouth wide open, and you’ll feel the warm air gently blow onto your hand.
  2. Exhale with your lips puckered, making a tiny opening, and that same air feels cold.

In both cases, the air in your body has been warmed, and remains at that high temperature until just before it passes your lips. With your mouth wide open, it simply exits slowly, warming your hand slightly. But with only a tiny opening, the air expands rapidly — what we call adiabatically in physics — and cools as it does so.

Exhaling forcefully with your mouth open very, very slightly will cause the air to cool extremely quickly. The small opening causes the expelled air to expand from occupying an initially small volume to a large one very quickly: an example of adiabatic expansion.
(Credit: Pezibear/Pixabay)

The outer layers of the star that’s birthing the Boomerang Nebula possess all of these same conditions:

  • a large amount of hot matter,
  • being ejected incredibly rapidly,
  • from a tiny point (or, more technically, two points),
  • that has all the room it could ask for to expand and cool.

As a result, as the matter emitted from the Boomerang Nebula extends farther into the medium surrounding it, it expands and cools. It cools much more quickly than the surrounding radiation, including from other stars and the cosmic microwave background, can heat it up. It won’t stay at these cold temperatures forever, but for now, it’s significantly colder than the 2.725 K that sets the effective minimum temperature for everything else in the Universe.

planetary nebula
The Egg Nebula, as imaged here by Hubble, is a preplanetary nebula, as its outer layers have not yet been heated to sufficient temperatures by the central, contracting star to become fully ionized. Many of the giant stars visible today will evolve into a nebula like this before shedding their outer layers completely and dying in a white dwarf/planetary nebula combination. As the central star loses mass, the outermost objects in that stellar system, such as the analogue of our Oort cloud and Kuiper belt, become ejected.
Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), Hubble Space Telescope/ACS

The amazing thing about the Boomerang Nebula is that the very properties it possesses were predicted before it was discovered!

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Astronomer Raghvendra Sahai calculated that preplanetary nebulae with just the right conditions — the ones outlined above — could actually achieve a cooler temperature than anything else that naturally occurred in the Universe. Sahai was then part of the team in 1995 that made the critical long-wavelength observations that determined the temperature of the Boomerang Nebula, and found precisely what was predicted: temperatures lower than any other naturally occurring phenomenon.

As of today, in 2022, the Boomerang Nebula still stands as the coldest natural place in the Universe.

coldest place in the Universe
A color-coded temperature map of the Boomerang Nebula and the areas around it. The blue areas, which have expanded the most, are the coolest and lowest in temperature, and some locations around the Boomerang Nebula range from 0.5-1.0 K: the coldest natural temperatures ever seen.
Credit: ESO/NTT telescope; R. Sahai (JPL)/L. Nyman (ESO)

There’s no doubt that as of right now, of all the locations we’ve ever measured, the Boomerang Nebula possesses the coldest naturally occurring temperatures in all the Universe. The cause is adiabatic expansion, caused by the rapid expulsion of matter into an environment where it can expand in a relatively uninhibited fashion.

As far as why the Boomerang Nebula is ejecting all this matter so quickly and in such a collimated fashion, however, that’s a controversial and highly active area of research. So far, the Boomerang Nebula is the only preplanetary nebula that we’ve caught in a phase where its temperature has dropped below that of the Big Bang’s afterglow. However, there’s no way it’s the only such example of this ever occurring.

There’s likely an even colder place out there than what we’ve discovered so far. We simply have to keep looking. And who knows? Perhaps, someday, the star at the center of our Solar System — the Sun — will break that record itself, and the remnants of our own Solar System will perhaps become, for a short while, the absolute coldest place in the Universe!