Planck’s Cosmic Map Reveals Universe Older, Expanding More Slowly

by John Williams on March 21, 2013

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This image, the best map ever of the Universe, shows the oldest light in the universe. This glow, left over from the beginning of the cosmos called the cosmic microwave background, shows tiny changes in temperature represented by color. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Like archaeologists sifting through the dust of ancient civilizations, scientists with the ESA Planck mission today showed a map of the oldest light in the Universe. The first cosmology results of the mission suggest our Universe is slightly older and expanding more slowly than previously thought.

Planck’s new estimate for the age of the Universe is 13.82 billion years.

The map also appears to show more matter and dark matter and less dark energy, a hypothetical force that is causing an expansion of the Universe.

“We are measuring the oldest light in the Universe, the cosmic microwave background,” says Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics with NASA. “It is the most sensitive and detailed map ever. It’s like going from standard television to a new high definition screen. The new details have become crystal clear.”

Overall, the cosmic background radiation, the afterglow of the Universe’s birth, is smooth and uniform. The map, however, provides a glimpse of the tiny temperature fluctuations that were imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 370,000 years old. Scientists believe the map reveals a fossil, an imprint, of the state of the Universe just 10 nano-nano-nano-nano seconds after the Big Bang; just a tiny fraction of the time it took to read that sentence. The splotches in the Planck map represent the seeds from which the stars and galaxies formed.

The colors in the map represent different temperatures; red for warmer, blue for cooler. The temperature differences being only 1/100 millionth of a degree. “The contrast on the map has been turned way up,” says Charles Lawrence, the US project scientist for Planck at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Planck, launched in 2009 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, is a European Space Agency mission with significant contribution from NASA. The two-ton spacecraft gathers the ancient glow of the Universe’s beginning from a vantage more than 1 million miles from Earth.

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This graphic shows the evolution of satellites designed to measure the light left over from the Big Bang that created our Universe about 13.8 billion years ago. Called the cosmic background radiation, the light reveals information about the early Universe. The three panels show the same 10-square-degree patch of sky as seen by NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, and Planck. Planck has a resolution about 2.5 times greater than WMAP. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA

This is not the first map produced by Planck. In 2010, Planck produced an all-sky radiation map. Scientists, using supercomputers, have removed not only the bright emissions from foreground sources, like the Milky Way, but also stray light from the satellite itself.

As the light travels, matter scattered throughout the Universe with its associated gravity subtly bends and absorbs the light, “making it wiggle to and fro,” said Martin White, a Planck project scientist with the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“The Planck map shows the impact of all matter back to the edge of the Universe,” says White. “It’s not just a pretty picture. Our theories on how matter forms and how the Universe formed match spectacularly to this new data.”

“This is a treasury of scientific data,” said Krzysztof Gorski, a member of the Planck team with JPL. “We are very excited with the results. We find an early Universe that is considerably less rigged and more random than other, more complex models. We think they’ll be facing a dead-end.”

An artists animation depicting the “life” of a photon, or a particle light, as it travels across space and time from the beginning of the Universe to the detectors of the Planck telescope. Credit: NASA

Planck scientists believe the new data should help scientists refine many of the theories proposed by cosmologists that the Universe underwent a sudden and rapid inflation.

About 

John Williams is owner of TerraZoom, a Colorado-based web development shop specializing in web mapping and online image zooms. He also writes the award-winning blog, StarryCritters, an interactive site devoted to looking at images from NASA's Great Observatories and other sources in a different way. A long-time science writer and space enthusiast, he created award-winning Hubble Star Cards. Use coupon code UNIVERSE to Hold the Universe in your hands. Follow John on Twitter @terrazoom.

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