Astronomers Find Clouds of Primordial Gas from the Early Universe, Just Moments After Big Bang

ScienceDaily (Nov. 10, 2011) For the first time, astronomers have found pristine clouds of the primordial gas that formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang. The composition of the gas matches theoretical predictions, providing direct evidence in support of the modern cosmological explanation for the origins of elements in the universe.

Only the lightest elements, mostly hydrogen and helium, were created in the Big Bang. Then a few hundred million years passed before clumps of this primordial gas condensed to form the first stars, where heavier elements were forged. Until now, astronomers have always detected "metals" (their term for all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium) wherever they have looked in the universe.

"As hard as we've tried to find pristine material in the universe, we have failed until now. This is the first time we've observed pristine gas uncontaminated by heavier elements from stars," said J. Xavier Prochaska, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Prochaska is coauthor of a paper on the findings published online in Science on November 10. First author Michele Fumagalli is a UC Santa Cruz graduate student, and coauthor John O'Meara is at Saint Michael's College, Vermont.

"The lack of metals tells us this gas is pristine," Fumagalli said. "It's quite exciting, because it's the first evidence that fully matches the composition of the primordial gas predicted by the Big Bang theory."