NASA Insignia
Imagine the Universe!

WMAP Special Exhibit

A foggy universe...origin of the microwave background

History of the universe

We can only see the bottom surface of clouds in our atmosphere because that's where light no longer scatters off the water molecules in the cloud. Similarly, we can only see clearly into space to where the microwave background was last scattered off the electron haze in the early universe. (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

First, let's visit that time 400,000 years after the Big Bang just before light first broke free. If we imagine the universe had a human lifetime, then it was only 12 hours old when that light broke free. Stars wouldn't turn on until the universe was ready to enter grade school. The universe was hot and crowded then, about a thousandth its current size. All the matter that exists today, all the protons and all the electrons, were crammed together.

The average temperature was about 4,000 degrees. At that temperature, electrons could not bind with protons. Instead, the electrons buzzed about in a haze.

As the universe expanded it cooled. When the universe was a "chilly" 2,700 degrees, electrons could join protons to form the first hydrogen molecules. With no electron haze, the light created by the Big Bang could at long last shine through the universe. The light was released simultaneously across the entire universe – and not from one point like other types of light we are familiar with. The universe continues to expand. And that first light continues to shine.

Photo of raisin bread

The expansion of the universe can be thought of like raisin bread - the raisins are galaxies and as the universe expands, there is more and more space between the galaxies. Just like the bread dough rises. (Credit: NASA/Cosmic Times/Joe Petsko)

Imagine the universe as a loaf of rising raisin bread, in which the nearly formed galaxies are the raisins. The region in space that ultimately became home to the Milky Way galaxy is moving away from all the other regions, or all the other raisins in the bread. Now imagine that first light that was released simultaneously everywhere in the universe. Light released within our own region has long since passed us. Light released in regions very far from us, however, is just reaching us now.

This is the microwave background we see today. This is the afterglow of the Big Bang from regions so far away that, traveling at the speed of light, it took billions of years to reach us. Likewise, regions of space billions of years from us are receiving the light from the Big Bang that was produced in our region of the universe. Today, we are detecting microwave photons that last interacted with matter 15 billion years ago in a region 15 billion light years away. Perhaps, the photons that interacted 15 billion years ago with the electrons that make up our own bodies are now being detected by observers in some distant galaxy.

Published: July 2001
Text Reviewed: September 2018