Researchers from Durham University have found a ‘fossil’ that dates from the very beginnings of the universe.

The ‘fossil’ is actually an unpolluted cloud of space gas. Due to its pristine state, the gas cloud could offer valuable information about how galaxies were formed after the Big Bang, which occurred 13.7 billion years ago.

Most gas clouds get polluted by waste from exploding stars and so are less useful for understanding the origins of the universe.

The pristine gas cloud discovered by the Durham researchers is one of only three to have ever been found. Two smaller clouds were discovered in 2011.

The gas cloud was spotted using a huge, twin ten-metre telescope at the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The researchers were able to examine the cloud thanks to light from material falling into a super black hole behind it.

It is hoped that learning more about the gas cloud will help in the search for similar ‘relics’ throughout the universe. Such ‘fossils’ could help scientists gain a better understanding about why some gas clouds formed stars and galaxies after the Big Bang while others did not.

The Durham researchers were working as members of a team led by Swinburne University of Technology, Australia. The team also included members from Saint Michael’s College, USA, and from the WM Keck Observatory.

The research was funded by grants from the Australian Research Council Discovery Project and the European Research Council.

(The featured image is courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s photo stream, from Flickr Creative Commons.)

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