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Starts With A Bang

What Was It Like When The First Stars Began Illuminating The Universe?

Shortly after the Big Bang, the Universe became completely dark. The first stars, when they ignited, changed everything.

For perhaps 100 million years, the Universe was devoid of stars. The matter in the Universe required just half a million years to form neutral atoms, but gravitation on cosmic scales is a slow process, made even more difficult by the high energies of the radiation the Universe was born with. As the Universe cooled, gravitation began to pull matter together into clumps and eventually clusters, growing faster and faster as more matter was attracted together.

Eventually, we reached the point where dense gas clouds could collapse, forming objects that were hot and massive enough to ignite nuclear fusion in their cores. When those first hydrogen-into-helium chain reactions began taking place, we could finally claim that the first stars had been born. Here’s what the Universe was like back then.

The overdense regions grow and grow over time, but are limited in their growth by both the initial small sizes of the overdensities and also by the presence of radiation that’s still energetic, which prevents structure from growing any faster. It takes tens-to-hundreds of millions of years to form the first stars; clumps of matter exist long before that, however. (AARON SMITH/TACC/UT-AUSTIN)

By time 50-to-100 million years have gone by, the Universe is no longer completely uniform, but has begun to form the great cosmic web under the cosmic influence of gravity. The initially overdense regions have grown and grown, attracting more and more matter to them over time. Meanwhile, the regions that began with a lower density of matter than average have been less able to hold onto it, giving it up to the denser regions.

The result is that the very densest regions begin forming stars, while the slightly less dense regions will get there eventually, but tens-to-hundreds of millions of years later. The regions of only a modest overdensity will take perhaps half-a-billion years or more to get there, while regions of just average density might not form stars until a couple of billion years have passed.

The first stars and galaxies in the Universe will be surrounded by neutral atoms of (mostly) hydrogen gas, which absorbs the starlight. Without metals to cool them down or radiate energy away, only large-mass clumps in the heaviest-mass regions can form stars. The very first star will likely form at 50-to-100 million years of age, based on our best theories of structure formation. (NICOLE RAGER FULLER / NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION)

The very first stars, when they ignite, do so deep inside molecular clouds. They’re made almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium; with the exception of the approximately 1-part-in-a-billion of the Universe that’s lithium, there are no heavier elements at all. As gravitational collapse occurs, the energy gets trapped inside this gas, causing the proto-star to heat up.

It’s only when, under high-density conditions, the temperature crosses a critical threshold of around 4 million K, that nuclear fusion can begin. When that occurs, things start to get interesting.

The most straightforward and lowest-energy version of the proton-proton chain, which produces helium-4 from initial hydrogen fuel.(WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER SARANG)

For one, the great cosmic race that will take place in all future star-forming regions begins for the first time in the Universe. As fusion begins in the core, the gravitational collapse that continues to grow the mass of the star is suddenly counteracted by the radiation pressure emanating from the inside.

At a subatomic level, protons are fusing in a chain reaction to form deuterium, then either tritium or helium-3, and then helium-4, emitting energy at every step. As the temperature rises in the core, the energy emitted increases, eventually fighting back again the infall of mass due to gravity.

An artist’s conception of what the Universe might look like as it forms stars for the first time. As they shine and merge, radiation will be emitted, both electromagnetic and gravitational. But the conversion of matter into energy does something else: it fights against gravitation.(NASA/JPL-CALTECH/R. HURT (SSC))

These earliest stars, much like modern stars, grow quickly due to gravitation. But unlike modern stars, they don’t have heavy elements in them, so they cannot cool as quickly; it’s more difficult to radiate energy away without heavy elements. Because you need to cool in order to collapse, this means it’s only the largest, most massive clumps that will lead to stars.

And so the first stars we form in the young Universe are about 10 times more massive than our Sun on average, with the most massive ones reaching many hundreds or even thousands of solar masses. (By comparison, the average star today is merely about 40% the mass of our Sun.)

The (modern) Morgan–Keenan spectral classification system, with the temperature range of each star class shown above it, in kelvin. The overwhelming majority of stars today are M-class stars, with only 1 known O- or B-class star within 25 parsecs. Our Sun is a G-class star. However, in the early Universe, almost all of the stars were O or B-class stars, with an average mass 25 times greater than average stars today. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER LUCASVB, ADDITIONS BY E. SIEGEL)

The radiation emitted by these very massive stars is peaked differently that our Sun is. While our Sun emits mostly visible light, these more massive, early stars emit predominantly ultraviolet light: higher energy photons than we typically have today. Ultraviolet photons don’t just give humans sunburns; they have enough energy to knock electrons clean off of the atoms they encounter: they ionize matter.

Since most of the Universe is made out of neutral atoms, with these first stars showing up in these clumpy clouds of gas, the first thing the light does is smash into the neutral atoms surrounding them. And the first things those atoms do is ionize: breaking apart into nuclei and free electrons, for the first time since the Universe was a few hundred thousand years old.

The star-forming region NGC 2174 showcases the nebulosity, the neutral matter and the presence of external elements as the gas evaporates. The surrounding material becomes ionized as well, leading to its own interesting set of physics. (NASA, ESA, AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA), AND J. HESTER)

This process is known as reionization, since it’s the second time in the Universe’s history that atoms became ionized. However, because it takes so long for most of the Universe to form stars, there aren’t enough ultraviolet photons to ionize most of the matter just yet. For hundreds of millions of years, neutral atoms will dominate over the reionized ones. The starlight from the very first stars doesn’t get very far; it gets absorbed by the intervening neutral atoms almost everywhere. Some of them will scatter light, while others will become ionized again, which itself is interesting.

An artist’s conception of what the Universe might look like as it forms stars for the first time. As they shine and merge, radiation will be emitted, both electromagnetic and gravitational. The neutral atoms surrounding it get ionized, and get blown off, quenching (or ending) star formation and growth in that region.(NASA/ESA/ESO/WOLFRAM FREUDLING ET AL. (STECF))

The ionization and the intense radiation pressure from the first stars forces star formation to cease shortly after it begins; most of the gas clouds that give rise to stars is blown apart, and evaporated away by this radiation. The matter that does remain collapses into a protoplanetary disk, just like it does today, but without any heavy elements, only diffuse, giant planets can form. The first stars of all couldn’t have hung onto small, rocky-size planets at all, as the radiation pressure would destroy them entirely.

The radiation doesn’t just destroy aspiring planets, it destroys atoms as well, by kicking electrons energetically off of the nuclei and sending them into the interstellar medium. But even that leads to another interesting part of the story.

The very first stars in the Universe may not form until 50-to-100 million years after the Big Bang, owing to the fact that structure formation takes a very long time, based on the small initial fluctuations that they grow from and the slow rate of growth that the large amount of radiation still around demands. When they do, they can only form gas giant planets in the protoplanetary disks around them; everything else gets destroyed by radiation. (NASA, ESA, AND G. BACON (STSCI); SCIENCE CREDIT: NASA, ESA, AND J. MAUERHAN)

Whenever an atom becomes ionized, there’s a chance it will run into a free electron that was kicked off of another atom, leading to a new neutral atom. When neutral atoms form, their electrons cascade down in energy levels, emitting photons of different wavelengths as they do. The last of these lines is the strongest: the Lyman-alpha line, which contains the most energy. Some of the first light in the Universe that’s visible is this Lyman-alpha line, allowing astronomers to look for this signature wherever light exists.

The second-strongest line is the one that transitions from the third-lowest to the second-lowest energy level: the Balmer-alpha line. This line is interesting to us because it’s red in color, and visible to the human eye.

Electron transitions in the hydrogen atom, along with the wavelengths of the resultant photons, showcase the effect of binding energy and the relationship between the electron and the proton in quantum physics. Hydrogen’s strongest transition is Lyman-alpha (n=2 to n=1), but its second strongest is visible: Balmer-alpha (n=3 to n=2).(WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USERS SZDORI AND ORANGEDOG)

If a human were somehow magically transported to this early time, we’d see the diffuse glow of starlight, as seen through the fog of neutral atoms. But wherever the atoms became ionized in the environs surrounding these young star clusters, there would be a pinkish glow coming from them: a mix of the white light from the stars and the red glow from the Balmer-alpha line.

This signal is so strong that it’s visible even today, in environments like the Orion Nebula in the Milky Way.

The great Orion Nebula is a fantastic example of an emission nebula, as evidenced by its red hues and its characteristic emission at 656.3 nanometers. (NASA, ESA, M. ROBBERTO (SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE/ESA) AND THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE ORION TREASURY PROJECT TEAM)

After the Big Bang, the Universe was dark for millions upon millions of years; after the glow of the Big Bang fades away, there’s nothing that human eyes could see. But when the first wave of star formation happens, growing in a cosmic crescendo across the visible Universe, starlight struggles to get out. The fog of neutral atoms permeating all of space absorbs most of it, but gets ionized in the process. Some of this reionized matter will become neutral again, emitting light when it does, including the 21-cm line over timescales of ~10 million years.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

But it takes far more than the very first stars to truly turn on the lights in the Universe. For that, we need more than just the first stars; we need them to live, burn through their fuel, die, and give rise to so much more. The first stars aren’t the end; they’re the beginning of the cosmic story that gives rise to us.

Further reading on what the Universe was like when:

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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