Image: This graphic shows a timeline of the universe based on the Big Bang theory and inflation models.
NASA/WMAP
This graphic shows a timeline of the universe based on the Big Bang theory and inflation models.
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updated 6/25/2012 2:20:36 PM ET 2012-06-25T18:20:36

Our universe could have popped into existence 13.7 billion years ago without any divine help whatsoever, researchers say.

That may run counter to our instincts, which recoil at the thought of something coming from nothing. But we shouldn't necessarily trust our instincts, for they were honed to help us survive on the African savannah 150,000 years ago, not understand the inner workings of the universe.

Instead, scientists say, we should trust the laws of physics.

"The Big Bang could've occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there," said astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. "With the laws of physics, you can get universes."

Filippenko spoke here Saturday (June 23) at the SETICon 2 conference, during a panel discussion called "Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?" [Images: Peering Back to the Big Bang]

Quantum fluctuations
In the very weird world of quantum mechanics, which describes action on a subatomic scale, random fluctuations can produce matter and energy out of nothingness. And this can lead to very big things indeed, researchers say.

"Quantum mechanical fluctuations can produce the cosmos," said panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the non-profit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. "If you would just, in this room, just twist time and space the right way, you might create an entirely new universe. It's not clear you could get into that universe, but you would create it."

"So it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe," Shostak added. "I don't know how that affects your theological leanings, but it is something to consider."

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Filippenko stressed that such statements are not attacks on the existence of God. Saying the Big Bang — a massive expansion 13.7 billion years ago that blew space up like a gigantic balloon — could have occurred without God is a far cry from saying that God doesn't exist, he said.

"I don't think you can use science to either prove or disprove the existence of God," Filippenko said.

The origin of the laws of physics
If we're after the ultimate origin of everything, however, invoking the laws of physics doesn't quite do the trick. It may get us one step closer, but it doesn't take us all the way, Filippenko said.

"The question, then, is, 'Why are there laws of physics?'" he said. "And you could say, 'Well, that required a divine creator, who created these laws of physics and the spark that led from the laws of physics to these universes, maybe more than one.'"

But that answer just continues to kick the can down the road, because you still need to explain where the divine creator came from. The process leads to a never-ending chain that always leaves you short of the ultimate answer, Filippenko said.

The origin of the laws of physics remains a mystery for now, he added, one that we may never be able to solve.

"The 'divine spark' was whatever produced the laws of physics," Filippenko said. "And I don't know what produced that divine spark. So let's just leave it at the laws of physics."

The History & Structure of the Universe (Infographic)The Universe: Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy StepsThe Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The interior of Mars holds vast reservoirs of water, with some spots apparently as wet as Earth's innards, scientists say.

The finding upends previous studies, which had estimated that the Red Planet's internal water stores were scanty at best — something of a surprise, given that liquid water apparently flowed on the Martian surface long ago.

"It's been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet's interior have been so dry," co-author Erik Hauri of the Carnegie Institution of Washington said in a statement. "This new research makes sense and suggests that volcanoes may have been the primary vehicle for getting water to the surface."

The scientists examined two Martian meteorites that formed in the planet's mantle, the layer under the crust. These rocks landed on Earth about 2.5 million years ago, after being blasted off the Red Planet by a violent impact.

Using a technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry, the team determined that the mantle from which the meteorites derived contained between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) of water. Earth's mantle, for comparison, holds roughly 50 to 300 ppm water, researchers said.

"The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet's differentiation," Hauri said.

Some of this water apparently made its made to the surface in the ancient past. NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004, have found plenty of evidence that Mars was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago than it is today.

The two golf-cart-size robots have even spotted signs of ancient hydrothermal systems, suggesting that some places on the Red Planet once had both water and an energy source — two key ingredients for the existence of life as we know it.

While the new results should help scientists better understand Mars and its history, they could also shed light on the evolution of large, rocky bodies in a more general sense, researchers said.

"Not only does this study explain how Mars got its water, it provides a mechanism for hydrogen storage in all the terrestrial planets at the time of their formation," lead author Francis McCubbin of the University of New Mexico said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Geology on June 15.

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwallor SPACE.com@Spacedotcom. We're also onFacebookandGoogle+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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