The particle horizon (also called the cosmological horizon, the light horizon, or the cosmic light horizon) is the maximum distance from which particles could have traveled to the observer in the age of the universe. It represents the boundary between the observable and the unobservable regions of the universe,[1] so its distance at the present epoch defines the size of the observable universe.[2] Due to the expansion of the universe it is not simply the age of the universe times the speed of light (approximately 13.8 billion light years), but rather the speed of light times the conformal time (see below). The existence, properties, and significance of a cosmological horizon depend on the particular cosmological model.

Conformal time and the particle horizon

In terms of comoving distance, the particle horizon is equal to the conformal time \eta that has passed since the Big Bang, times the speed of light c. In general, the conformal time at a certain time t is given by,

\( \eta = \int_{0}^{t} \frac{dt'}{a(t')} \)

where a(t) is the scale factor of the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker metric, and we have taken the Big Bang to be at t=0. By convention, a subscript 0 indicates "today" so that the conformal time today \(\eta(t_0) = \eta_0 = 1.48 \times 10^{18}\ {\rm s}\) . Note that the conformal time is not the age of the universe. Rather, the conformal time is the amount of time it would take a photon to travel from where we are located to the furthest observable distance provided the universe ceased expanding. As such, \( \eta_0 \) is not a physically meaningful time (this much time has not yet actually passed), though, as we will see, the particle horizon with which it is associated is a conceptually meaningful distance.

The particle horizon recedes constantly as time passes and the conformal time grows. As such, the observed fraction of the universe always increases.[1][3] Since proper distance at a given time is just comoving distance times the scale factor[4] (with comoving distance normally defined to be equal to proper distance at the present time, so \( a(t_0) = 1\) at present), the proper distance to the particle horizon at time t is given by[5]

\( a(t) H_p(t) = a(t) \int_{0}^{t} \frac{cdt'}{a(t')}\)

and for today t = t_0

\( H_p(t_0) = c\eta_0 = 14.4\ {\rm Gpc} = 46.9\ {\rm billion\ light\ years}\) .

Evolution of the particle horizon

In this section we consider the FLRW cosmological model. In that context, the universe can be approximated as composed by non-interacting constituents, each one being a perfect fluid with density \( \rho_i, partial pressure \( p_i and state equation p_i=\omega_i \rho_i, such that they add up to the total density \rho and total pressure p.[6] Let us now define the following functions:

Hubble function \( H=\frac{\dot a}{a}\)

The critical density \(\rho_c=\frac{3}{8\pi}H^2\)

The i-th dimensionless energy density \(\Omega_i=\frac{\rho_i}{\rho_c}\)

The dimensionless energy density \(\Omega=\frac{\rho}{\rho_c}=\sum \Omega_i\)

The redshift z given by the formula \(1+z=\frac{a_0}{a(t)}\)

Any function with a zero subscript denote the function evaluated at the present time t_0 (or equivalently z=0). The last term can be taken to be 1 including the curvature state equation.[7] It can be proved that the Hubble function is given by

\( H(z)=H_0\sqrt{\sum \Omega_{i0}(1+z)^{n_i}}\)

where \( n_i=3(1+\omega_i). Notice that the addition ranges over all possible partial constituents and in particular there can be countably infinitely many. With this notation we have:[7]

\( \text{The particle horizon } H_p \text{ exists if and only if } N>2\)

where N is the largest \( n_i \) (possibly infinite). The evolution of the particle horizon for an expanding universe \((\dot{a}>0) \) is:[7]

\( \frac{dH_p}{dt}=H_p(z)H(z)+c

where c is the speed of light and can be taken to be 1 (natural units). Notice that the derivative is made with respect to the FLRW-time t, while the functions are evaluated at the redshift z which are related as stated before. We have an analogous but slightly different result for Event Horizon.
Horizon problem
Main article: Horizon problem

The concept of a particle horizon can be used to illustrate the famous horizon problem, which is an unresolved issue associated with the Big Bang model. Extrapolating back to the time of recombination when the cosmic microwave background (CMB) was emitted, we obtain a particle horizon of about
H_p(t_{\rm CMB}) = c\eta_{\rm CMB} = 284\ {\rm Mpc} = 8.9 \times 10^{-3} H_p(t_0) .\)

which corresponds to a proper size at that time of:

\( a_{\rm CMB}H_p(t_{\rm CMB}) = 261\ {\rm kpc} \)

Since we observe the CMB to be emitted essentially from our particle horizon \( (284\text{ Mpc} \ll 14.4\text{ Gpc})\) , our expectation is that parts of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that are separated by about a fraction of a great circle across the sky of

\( f = H_p(t_{\rm CMB})/H_p(t_0)\)

(an angular size of \theta \sim 7.1^\circ) should be out of causal contact with each other. That the entire CMB is in thermal equilibrium and approximates a blackbody so well is therefore not explained by the standard explanations about the way the expansion of the universe proceeds. The most popular resolution to this problem is cosmic inflation.

See also
Portal icon Cosmology portal

Cosmological horizons
Observable universe


Edward Robert Harrison (2000). Cosmology: the science of the universe. Cambridge University Press. pp. 447–. ISBN 978-0-521-66148-5. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
Andrew R. Liddle; David Hilary Lyth (13 April 2000). Cosmological inflation and large-scale structure. Cambridge University Press. pp. 24–. ISBN 978-0-521-57598-0. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
Michael Paul Hobson; George Efstathiou; Anthony N. Lasenby (2006). General relativity: an introduction for physicists. Cambridge University Press. pp. 419–. ISBN 978-0-521-82951-9. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
Davis, Tamara M.; Charles H. Lineweaver (2004). "Expanding Confusion: common misconceptions of cosmological horizons and the superluminal expansion of the universe". Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia 21 (1): 97. arXiv:astro-ph/0310808. Bibcode:2004PASA...21...97D. doi:10.1071/AS03040.
Massimo Giovannini (2008). A primer on the physics of the cosmic microwave background. World Scientific. pp. 70–. ISBN 978-981-279-142-9. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
Berta Margalef-Bentabol; Juan Margalef-Bentabol; Jordi Cepa (21 December 2012). "Evolution of the cosmological horizons in a concordance universe". Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics 2012 (12). arXiv:1302.1609. Bibcode:2012JCAP...12..035M. doi:10.1088/1475-7516/2012/12/035.
Berta Margalef-Bentabol; Juan Margalef-Bentabol; Jordi Cepa (8 February 2013). "Evolution of the cosmological horizons in a universe with countably infinitely many state equations". Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. 015 2013 (02). arXiv:1302.2186. Bibcode:2013JCAP...02..015M. doi:10.1088/1475-7516/2013/02/015.

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