Element Abundance in the Universe

What Is the Most Abundant Element in the Universe?

When a supernova like this one (Cassiopeia A) explodes, it returns hydrogen and helium to the universe, plus heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen, and silicon.
When a supernova like this one (Cassiopeia A) explodes, it returns hydrogen and helium to the universe, plus heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen, and silicon. Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

The element composition of the universe is calculated by analyzing the light that is emitted and absorbed from stars, interstellar clouds, quasars, and other objects. The Hubble telescope greatly expanded our understanding of the composition of galaxies and gas in the intergalactic space between them. About 75% of the universe is believed to consist of dark energy and dark matter, which are different from the atoms and molecules that make up the everyday world around us. Thus, the composition of most of the universe is far from understood. However, spectral measurements of stars, dust clouds, and galaxies tell us the elemental composition of the portion that consists of normal matter.

Most Abundant Elements in the Milky Way Galaxy

This is a table of elements in the Milky Way, which is similar in composition to other galaxies in the universe. Keep in mind, elements represent matter as we understand it. Much more of the galaxy consists of something else!

Element Element Number Mass Fraction (ppm)
hydrogen 1 739,000
helium 2 240,000
oxygen 8 10,400
carbon 6 4,600
neon 10 1,340
iron 26 1,090
nitrogen 7 960
silicon 14 650
magnesium 12 580
sulfur 16 440

Most Abundant Element in the Universe

Right now, the most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen. In stars, hydrogen fuses into helium. Eventually, massive stars (around 8 times more massive than our Sun) run through their supply of hydrogen. Then, the core of helium contracts, supplying enough pressure to fuse two helium nuclei into carbon. Carbon fuses into oxygen, which fuses into silicon and sulfur. Silicon fuses into iron. The star runs out of fuel and goes supernova, releasing these elements back into space.

So, if helium fuses into carbon you may be wondering why oxygen is the third most abundant element and not carbon. The answer is because the stars in the universe today are not first generation stars! When newer stars form, they already contain more than just hydrogen. This time around, stars fuse hydrogen according to what's known as the C-N-O cycle (where C is carbon, N is nitrogen, and O is oxygen). A carbon and helium can fuse together to form oxygen. This happens not just in massive stars, but also in stars like the Sun once it enters its red giant phase. Carbon really comes out behind when a type II supernova occurs, because these stars undergo carbon fusion into oxygen with almost perfect completion!

How Element Abundance Will Change in the Universe

We won't be around to see it, but when the universe is thousands or millions times older than it is now, helium may overtake hydrogen as the most abundant element (or not, if enough hydrogen remains out in space to far from other atoms to fuse). After a much longer time, it's possible oxygen and carbon may become the first and second most abundant elements!

Composition of the Universe

So, if ordinary elemental matter doesn't account for most of the universe, what does its composition look like? Scientists debate this subject and revise percentages when new data becomes available. For now, the matter and energy composition is believed to be:

  • 73% Dark Energy: Most of universe seems to consist of something we know next to nothing about. Dark energy probably doesn't have mass, yet matter and energy are related.
  • 22% Dark Matter: Dark matter is stuff that doesn't emit radiation in any wavelength of the spectrum. Scientists are unsure what, exactly, dark matter is. It has not be observed or created in a lab. Right now, the best bet is that it's cold dark matter, a substance consisting of particles comparable to neutrinos, yet much more massive.
  • 4% Gas: Most of the gas in the universe is hydrogen and helium, found between stars (interstellar gas). Ordinary gas does not emit light, although it does scatter it. Ionized gases glow, but not brightly enough to compete with the light of stars. Astronomers use infrared, x-ray, and radio telescopes to image this matter.
  • 0.04% Stars: To human eyes, it appears the universe is full of stars. It's amazing to realize they account for such a small percentage of our reality.
  • 0.3% Neutrinos: Neutrinos are tiny, electrically neutral particles that travel at near light speed.
  • 0.03% Heavy Elements: Only a tiny fraction of the universe consists of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Over time this percentage will grow.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Element Abundance in the Universe." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/most-abundant-element-in-known-space-4006866. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). Element Abundance in the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/most-abundant-element-in-known-space-4006866 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Element Abundance in the Universe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/most-abundant-element-in-known-space-4006866 (accessed June 8, 2023).