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The ultimate goal of astronomers is to understand the structure, behavior, and evolution of all of the matter and energy that exists. Astronomers call the set of all matter and energy the universe. The universe is infinite in space, but astronomers believe it does have a finite age. Astronomers accept the theory that about 14 billion years ago the universe began as an explosive event resulting in a hot, dense, expanding sea of matter and energy. This event is known as the big bang (see Big Bang Theory). Astronomers cannot observe that far back in time. Many astronomers believe, however, that within the first fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe went through a tremendous inflation, expanding many times in size, before it resumed a slower expansion.

As the universe expanded and cooled, various forms of elementary particles of matter formed. By the time the universe was one second old, protons had formed. For approximately the next 1,000 seconds, in the era of nucleosynthesis, all the nuclei of deuterium (hydrogen with both a proton and neutron in the nucleus) that are present in the universe today formed. During this brief period, some nuclei of lithium, beryllium, and helium formed as well.

According to the widely accepted theory of the big bang, the universe originated about 14 billion years ago and has been expanding ever since. Astronomers recognize four models of possible futures for the universe. According to the closed model, many billions of years from now expansion will slow, stop, and the universe will contract back in upon itself. In the flat model, the universe will not collapse upon itself, but expansion will slow and the universe will approach a stable size. According to the open model, the universe will continue expanding forever. In the accelerating expansion model, the universe will expand faster and faster until even the particles in normal matter are torn away from each other. Astronomers currently favor the accelerating expansion model.

When the universe was about 1 million years old, it had cooled to about 3000 K (about 3300°C or about 5900°F). At that temperature, the protons and heavier nuclei formed during nucleosynthesis could combine with electrons to form atoms. Before electrons combined with nuclei, the travel of radiation through space was very difficult. Radiation in the form of photons (packets of light energy) could not travel very far without colliding with electrons. Once protons and electrons combined to form hydrogen, photons became able to travel through space. The radiation carried by the photons had the characteristic spectrum of a hot gas. Since the time this radiation was first released, it has cooled and is now 3 K (-270°C or –450°F). It is called the primeval background radiation and has been definitively detected and studied, first by radio telescopes and then by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) spacecrafts. COBE, WMAP, and ground-based radio telescopes detected tiny deviations from uniformity in the primeval background radiation; these deviations may be the seeds from which clusters of galaxies grew.

The gravitational force from invisible matter, known as dark matter, may have helped speed the formation of structure in the universe. Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed galaxies older than astronomers expected, reducing the interval between the big bang and the formation of galaxies or clusters of galaxies.

From about 2 billion years after the big bang for another 2 billion years, quasars formed as active giant black holes in the cores of galaxies. These quasars gave off radiation as they consumed matter from nearby galaxies. Few quasars appear close to Earth, so quasars must be a feature of the earlier universe.

About 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system formed. The oldest fossils of a living organism date from about 3.5 billion years ago and represent cyanobacteria. Life evolved, and 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and many other species were extinguished, probably from a catastrophic meteor impact. Modern humans evolved no earlier than a few hundred thousand years ago, a blink of an eye on the cosmic timescale.


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