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A pair of two-billion-year-old clouds of gas are providing scientists with new clues about the origins of the universe this week. These recently discovered pockets of “pristine gas” have remained untouched since the time of the Big Bang, and have never been mingled with heavier elements forged by later stars — giving them the lowest measurement of “metallacity” in the universe.
The discovery will help to lend further credence to the Big Bang theory, as researchers have long believed that only the lightest elements in the universe formed immediately after it’s creation. The lack of dense metals in the pristine clouds, which formed just minutes after the initial Big Bang, serves as some of the first hard evidence of the theory’s accuracy.
In an interview with SPACE.com, astronomer Michele Fumagalli of UC Santa Cruz commented;
“It’s actually a very nice confirmation of the theory, because the theory predicts that in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, things like hydrogen and helium were produced and no metals. So, this is the first time that we have a very strong observation and evidence that indeed this theory is correct. It’s good news for cosmology.”
Distant objects in space are able to analyzed from Earth by rays of light that provide a “fingerprint” of the gases they contain, which is how it was discerned that these particular clouds contain only hydrogen and deuterium. The fact that such pockets of the universe exist uncontaminated by heavier elements is sufficient cause to reexamine the way stars disperse metals.
Originally, it was assumed that pristine gas was not locatable by scientists because heavy elements from early stars had been very thoroughly spread throughout the universe. Now that the clouds’ existence has been proven, researchers will be forced reconsider certain aspects of how matter travels through space.
Previous efforts have been made by scientists to find pristine gas, but this is the first successful attempt. An ongoing study of extragalactic gases revealed the clouds by chance near the constellations of Leo and Ursa Major. It is currently unknown how many other examples of pristine gas might exist throughout the universe, but the search is on for cosmologists.
Physicist John O’Meara of Saint Michael’s college was quoted by Discovery News explaining, “One of our biggest questions in cosmology is how galaxies get the gas they need to form stars, and how they also sent out the remnants of stars into their surroundings.” Some researchers now theorize that pristine clouds may in fact be the source that feeds young galaxies the cold gas to create stars.