The universe was born with the Big Bang as an unimaginably hot, dense point. When the universe was just 10-34 of a second or so old — that is, a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in age — it experienced an incredible burst of expansion known as inflation, in which space itself expanded faster than the speed of light. During this period, the universe doubled in size at least 90 times, going from subatomic-sized to golf-ball-sized almost instantaneously.
The work that goes into understanding the expanding universe comes from a combination of theoretical physics and direct observations by astronomers. However, in some cases astronomers have not been able to see direct evidence — such as the case of gravitational waves associated with the cosmic microwave background, the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. A preliminary announcement about finding these waves in 2014 was quickly retracted, after astronomers found the signal detected could be explained by dust in the Milky Way.
According to NASA, after inflation the growth of the universe continued, but at a slower rate. As space expanded, the universe cooled and matter formed. One second after the Big Bang, the universe was filled with neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons, photons and neutrinos.
For the first 380,000 years or so, the universe was essentially too hot for light to shine, according to France’s National Center of Space Research (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, or CNES). The heat of creation smashed atoms together with enough force to break them up into a dense plasma, an opaque soup of protons, neutrons and electrons that scattered light like fog.
Roughly 380,000 years after the Big Bang, matter cooled enough for atoms to form during the era of recombination, resulting in a transparent, electrically neutral gas, according to NASA. This set loose the initial flash of light created during the Big Bang, which is detectable today as cosmic microwave background radiation. However, after this point, the universe was plunged into darkness, since no stars or any other bright objects had formed yet.
About 400 million years after the Big Bang, the universe began to emerge from the cosmic dark ages during the epoch of reionization. During this time, which lasted more than a half-billion years, clumps of gas collapsed enough to form the first stars and galaxies, whose energetic ultraviolet light ionized and destroyed most of the neutral hydrogen.
Although the expansion of the universe gradually slowed down as the matter in the universe pulled on itself via gravity, about 5 or 6 billion years after the Big Bang, according to NASA, a mysterious force now called dark energy began speeding up the expansion of the universe again, a phenomenon that continues today.
A little after 9 billion years after the Big Bang, our solar system was born.