A project of the Dark Energy Survey collaboration


Cosmic soup for the soul


Amidst the dark forces and energies at work across the cosmos, a fire brews, a soup simmers.

The expansion history of the Universe is dominated by dark matter and dark energy. However, it is the elements in the periodic table that allow us to study and understand that history. In this posting we give a flavor for how the cosmic soup of elements came into existence.

Almost all the elements came into existence within 30 minutes of the Big Bang. The resulting broth was rather dull: 9 hydrogen nuclei (one proton) to every helium nucleus (two protons) and almost nothing of anything else. Even if you sifted through a billion nuclei you’d still be lucky enough to find anything as tasty as lithium (three protons).

Fortunately, over the intervening 13.7 billion years, the cosmic soup has become a little more interesting. Nuclear fusion – so hard to reproduce on Earth – is common place in stars: we have fusion to thank for the carbon in our cells, to the iron in our blood.

The flavor, density and temperature of the element soup varies widely. Consider our own Solar system: from the extreme pressures and temperatures inside the Sun’s core, to the cold and empty space between the planets. These variations are replicated throughout the Milky Way and in all the other galaxies in the universe.

These three concepts – that most elements were formed just after the Big Bang; that a smattering of heavier elements have been added since then; and that the elements are distributed non-uniformly – are of great benefit to the Dark Energy Survey.

Take for example clusters of galaxies, like those in the slideshow above (described in more detail later). These structures are so enormous that they can be considered to be mini Universes in their own right. Clusters contain several dozen galaxies, and sometimes as may as several hundred. In between the galaxies is the continuous haze of tenuous gas.

Both the gas and the galaxies are trapped within the confines of the cluster by dark matter. The dark matter acts like the lid on a sauce pan, where the lid stops the pan boiling dry, the dark matter stops the galaxies – which are moving at more than a million miles per hour – from flying away. However, at the outer edges of the very largest clusters, dark energy competes with gravity and the galaxies are starting to be peeled away. It is this interplay of gravity and dark energy that make clusters such useful cosmological probes.

The particles in the gas are so hot that electrons (negatively charged) and nuclei (positively charged) are stripped apart – this form of gas is known as a plasma. The plasma shines brightly in the X-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum and can be detected by satellites such as XMM-Newton and Chandra. The plasma also casts a shadow on the Cosmic Microwave Background (a pulse of light that was emitted throughout the Universe one hundred thousands years after the Big Bang), meaning it can also be detected with shortwave radio telescopes such as the South Pole Telescope.

By contrast, the elements trapped in the stars are cooler, and at much higher densities, and shine in visible light. Starlight allows the Dark Energy Survey to not only to detect hundreds of thousands of clusters, but also to measure their distances (via a technique known as photometric redshifts), and to make a first estimate of their masses. Those masses need to be refined before we can use the clusters for cosmology, and information of the plasma from X-ray and radio telescopes is essential for that.

In the slideshow above we show several examples of the hundreds of Dark Energy Survey clusters that have also been observed by the XMM-Newton Cluster Survey. The intensity of the X-ray emission coming from the hot plasma is indicated by the red contours. X-ray specialists are working with these two datasets to calibrate the masses of Dark Energy Survey clusters.

Finally… why “for the soul”? Well “soul’’ happens to be a synonym for “quintessence”, and Quintessence has been widely adopted by cosmologists as a catch all term to describe theories that allow for a time variation in the properties of Dark Energy.


Det. Kathy Romer [University of Sussex]

Image Credit: Det.’s Phil Rooney [University of Sussex] and Chris Miller [University of Michigan]

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