HOW FAR CAN WE SEE into the cosmos? And what lies beyond what we can see? Will we ever know what exists beyond the ‘edge of space’?
These questions were posed recently by SpaceInfo readers in response to our story on what astronomers will see one trillion years from now.
They’re very interesting questions indeed. The answers require a bit of thought, and especially they require someone who knows what they’re talking about and can provide them in an understandable manner.
Introducing Dr Tamara Davis, a cosmologist and Research Fellow in the Physics Department at the University of Queensland. Tamara is involved in some of the most exciting cosmological research going at the moment, and her achievements were recognised a couple of years ago when she was honoured with the 2009 L’Oréal Women in Science Award.
We’re grateful to Tamara for taking the time to give us the following brief explanation of how far we can see, how far we might be able to see in the future, and why there are some things we’ll never see.
Our cosmic Horizons
by Dr Tamara Davis, University of Queensland
SpaceInfo readers have asked about what lies beyond the reach of our view of the cosmos. This is a great question, and I hope the following explanation will help everyone to understand the situation.
There are actually two types of ‘cosmic horizon’. There’s a limit to how far we can see right now, and a different limit to how far we’ll be able to see in the far future.
The limit to how far we can see right now is called our “particle horizon” because it is the distance to the most far-away “particle” (eg. galaxy) that we can currently see.
The particle horizon arises because light has been able to travel only a finite distance since the Big Bang. If we had been around to shine a light from our position at the time of the Big Bang, then the distance that light could have travelled by now is the distance to our particle horizon.
This kind of horizon is getting bigger as time goes on (as light has more time to travel), and we’re continually able to see things further and further away (and further and further back in time).
Practically speaking, we can’t actually see all the way to our theoretical particle horizon because to do so we’d have to see light that was emitted right at the moment of the Big Bang. The universe was so dense back then that light couldn’t travel very far before getting scattered. It was unable to ‘break out’ from the dense cosmic ‘soup’.
In practical terms the most distant thing we can see is what cosmologists call the “last scattering surface”. This was the state of play about 100,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe’s density dropped to the point that light could break out and travel relatively unimpeded.
These days we perceive that light as a uniform glow of microwave radiation from all directions, known as the cosmic microwave background. Some of the static picked up by old analogue TVs came from this radiation … so, funnily enough, when you saw fuzz on your TV screen you were actually detecting light from our effective particle horizon!
Edge of the great unknown
The other type of horizon, probably more relevant to the discussion in the original article, is our “event horizon”, which is the limit to how far we will be able to see in the infinite future.
If we were to shine a light outwards from our position now, then the distance it can travel in the future is our event horizon.
Now, you might think that, unless the cosmos were to somehow end, a light beam could travel an infinite distance into an infinite future. But in a universe whose rate of expansion is accelerating (like ours) that isn’t true, so there’s a limit to how far we will be able to see, even given infinite time.
This is because there are distant parts of the universe expanding away from us faster than the speed of light… the only way light from galaxies in the most distant reaches of the universe can reach us is if the universe’s expansion slows down.
It’s a bit like a swimmer caught in a rip, trying to swim back to shore…she can’t swim faster than the rip, so she’ll never make it. Unless the rip slows down she hasn’t got a chance.
But our universe is not slowing down, the expansion is actually speeding up, so light from some distant galaxies will forever be out of view.
This limit is called our “event horizon” because it separates events we will be able to see from events we will never be able to see.
The event horizon is actually a more stringent limit than the particle horizon, because not only do you have to ask whether you can see the particle, but also if you can see it for its entire life.
Many galaxies that we can currently see are actually, by now, well beyond our event horizon—because although we can see them as they were in the past, we will never be able to see them as they are today.
Our current event horizon is at a redshift of 1.8…that’s about 5 giga-parsecs away. (A giga-parsec is one billion parsecs, with a parsec being 3.26 light-years.)
You might have seen the Hubble Deep Field (see image above)—one of the ‘deepest,’ most detailed photos of the universe ever taken. The most distant galaxy in that image is beyond a redshift of 6 (more than 8 giga-parsecs away).
That means that a huge number of the galaxies we can see in that image are now actually beyond our event horizon. The Hubble Deep Field shows us a snapshot of them as they were in the past, but we’ll never be able to communicate with them.
For more information about this subject, and for some scientific diagrams of how far we can see in the universe, you can download a fascinating PDF-format article by Tamara from http://www.physics.uq.edu.au/download/tamarad/astro/scienceimages/Spacetime_diagrams.pdf
She’s also written another great article that helps straighten out this wide topic, “Misconceptions about the Big Bang” (Scientific American, March 2005). And for even more information you can visit her website at http://www.physics.uq.edu.au/download/tamarad/astro/index.html
Distant galaxy image courtesy NASA, ESA, Garth Illingworth (UC Santa Cruz), Rychard Bouwens (UC Santa Cruz and Leiden University) and the HUDF09 Team / A. Feild (STScI). HDF image courtesy R. Williams (STScI), the Hubble Deep Field Team and NASA. Tamara Davis image courtesy timothyburgess.net / Science in Public.
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