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13.73 Billion Years – The Most Precise Measurement of the Age of the Universe Yet

Article Updated: 26 Dec , 2015
by

NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has taken the best measurement of the age of the Universe to date. According to highly precise observations of microwave radiation observed all over the cosmos, WMAP scientists now have the best estimate yet on the age of the Universe: 13.73 billion years, plus or minus 120 million years (that’s an error margin of only 0.87%… not bad really…).

The WMAP mission was sent to the Sun-Earth second Lagrangian point (L2), located approximately 1.5 million km from the surface of the Earth on the night-side (i.e. WMAP is constantly in the shadow of the Earth) in 2001. The reason for this location is the nature of the gravitational stability in the region and the lack of electromagnetic interference from the Sun. Constantly looking out into space, WMAP scans the cosmos with its ultra sensitive microwave receiver, mapping any small variations in the background “temperature” (anisotropy) of the universe. It can detect microwave radiation in the wavelength range of 3.3-13.6 mm (with a corresponding frequency of 90-22 GHz). Warm and cool regions of space are therefore mapped, including the radiation polarity.

This microwave background radiation originates from a very early universe, just 400,000 years after the Big Bang, when the ambient temperature of the universe was about 3,000 K. At this temperature, neutral hydrogen atoms were possible, scattering photons. It is these photons WMAP observes today, only much cooler at 2.7 Kelvin (that’s only 2.7 degrees higher than absolute zero, -273.15°C). WMAP constantly observes this cosmic radiation, measuring tiny alterations in temperature and polarity. These measurements refine our understanding about the structure of our universe around the time of the Big Bang and also help us understand the nature of the period of “inflation”, in the very beginning of the expansion of the Universe.

It is a matter of exposure for the WMAP mission, the longer it observes the better refined the measurements. After seven years of results-taking, the WMAP mission has tightened the estimate on the age of the Universe down to an error margin of only 120 million years, that’s 0.87% of the 13.73 billion years since the Big Bang.

Everything is tightening up and giving us better and better precision all the time […] It’s actually significantly better than previous results. There is all kinds of richness in the data.” – Charles L. Bennett, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University.

This will be exciting news to cosmologists as theories on the very beginning of the Universe are developed even further.

Source: New York Times


54 Responses

  1. pantzov says:

    ahhh such certainty in the article. 🙂

    still highly interesting of course…

  2. Peter B says:

    Seems such a long time ago….
    And yet……..

  3. Mikel says:

    Wait until they finally are forced to admit that redshift is not an indicator of distance. Then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.

  4. olga says:

    I am waiting for the creationists in the states to come up with a better explanation.
    And I am also waiting to see how the limits of the current explanation called inflationary Big Bang will be overcome.
    Dark matter and dark energy are just dummies without understanding.
    Ian of course can make a dozen of articles from that unprecise ‘might and would’.

    The good thing is that in the LOTF you have this funny creationists versus evolutionists wars.
    Very amusing and so medieval.

    Ian, wouldnt it be nice to have some report on that.

  5. you mean the earth is older than the Bible tells us?
    Heresy!

  6. Dave says:

    Lessee . . . 14+ billion years ago everything in the universe was in one place, in fact the whole universe itself was in one place, the only “Place” at all was all there. And “Bang” it all expanded. And when it expanded way back then it glowed, photons took off in all directions at the speed of , well of photons. And zipping away from “everything” these photons went. Now here we are 14 billion light years away from that point, and the photons are now just hitting us. But 14 billion years ago we were “there” not here. So how did the photons leave “there”, and we were there too becaue everything that ever was, is, or ever will be was all there, and now we are here 14 billion years later seeing the same photon’s that left when the subatomic particles, that are now the atoms in our bodies, were in the same place where those photons are now supposed to be coming from?

  7. Ian O'Neill says:

    Correction: Yes, thanks to those who pointed this out, the text should read “shadow of the Earth” and not the Sun.

    Cheers, Ian

  8. Eric says:

    ~ Wait until they finally are forced to admit that redshift is not an indicator of distance. Then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.~

    I’ve thought about that before.

    I’ve half jokingly thought that once we actually see nothing because we’ve looked so far armageddon will happen.

    On a serious note, would we in fact see the Big Bang should we reach that point? (If that is indeed the cause for all that exists?) Would we see what was before it? I guess that would go back to my half joking notion.

  9. Eric says:

    Dave, that is something I’ve never once thought about. That’s a darn good question, man.

    Hmm. I’ve got nothin for that.

  10. Eric says:

    How about this. What if the universe expands until it can no longer go further and gravity pulls it back to a single point and when it does it explodes and expands again? Is it possible that the universe just “breathes” – for the lack of a better term? Right now it’s exhaling and expanding and 10-15 billion years from now it will start to inhale and contract?

  11. Mikel says:

    If redshift is not an indicator of distance (see http://www.haltonarp.com), then there is no expansion, and the whole thing falls apart.

  12. Ryan says:

    Universal contraction is a possibility, but through constraints such as the age of the universe, it doesn’t seem likely. According to what we know, the universe is actually accelerating its expansion!

    And I think the cosmic microwave background is as far back in time as we can see, because before that photons and electrons were coupled, creating a kind of “curtain” we can’t see past. When decoupling occurred, the photons were scattered for the last time and created what we see as the CMB.

    I think I got it right, let me know if I misspoke or missed something.

  13. Eric says:

    for realz

  14. tacitus says:

    Wow – the fringe is out in force this morning. Arp’s hypothesis started falling apart when we could finally see the host galaxies of the quasars he claims were local objects and not billions of light years away. Since they were also extremely red shifted, he was reduced to a lot of hand-waving that virtually no other astronomer takes seriously.

    That red shift as an indicator of distance is pretty much undeniable at this point, and while some creationists and others with pseudoscientific agendas of their own are holding out for another explanation, it is increasingly obvious that there’s little chance that they are even remotely correct.

    It is entirely likely that further tweaking of Big Bang theory will be necessary before we have a fully accurate picture of what happened 13.73 billion years ago (i.e. inflation, dark energy, etc), but the odds of the whole theory (or even large chunks of it) being overturned to the point that the current estimate of the age of the Universe is wildly wrong are essentially nil.

  15. Ray says:

    Dave,

    Those photons we’re looking at didn’t start traveling towards us untill ~379000 years after the big bang. Before that the entire universe was opaque. So by that time there were plenty of other “places” from which the photons could travel towards us, and which were pretty far away. Considering also that the distance they are traveling between there and here has been expanding, (which is why they get here all stretched out) it makes perfect sence that some of them are only still just getting here.

  16. David says:

    Here is a theory. Our universe is an atom in another universe that just happened to be subject to an atom-smashing experiment. The resulting explosion is taking (by our time) over 13 billion years to unfold. In our own atom-smashing experiments, we are giving birth to billions of universes like our own, and the resulting things we see (protons, muons, etc.) are actually large-scale structures in these smaller universes.
    Maybe this is a crap theory, but it still beats the “made from a rib” myth. Its just not as marketable.

  17. Eric says:

    I’m not trying to create an alternate genesis here, I’m just trying to be objectionable. I’m just a 25 year old average joe who thinks about astronomy opposed to most people my age who yammer about Paris Hilton’s clothing, jail stint or who she screws.

    I just saw on a History Channel documentary that there are actually 2 small galaxies colliding with our Milky Way. Is it possible that their individual gravities are having an effect on our galaxy’s speed through the universe; i.e. – slowing the Milky Way down; making it seem as though everything else around us is speeding up? So please understand that I’m just trying to think outside of the box and I’m not trying to throw a divided rib into the equation.

    The “made from a rib” belief involves incest – which the Bible that states it frowns upon. Go figure.

  18. Craig DeForest says:

    Precise, not necessarily accurate…

    Precision is a measure of a priori uncertainty. Accuracy is a measure of systematic error, which we have no independent means of estimating at this precision (since this is the most precise measurement yet).

  19. Kevin says:

    Can’t wait until we we can say that the universe was created on Tuesday, 13,732,551 BC…sometime in the afternoon!

  20. Kevin says:

    LOL…oops, not enough zeroes

  21. wingtip says:

    …….well…….At least were not in texas!….

  22. tacitus says:

    “I’m just trying to be objectionable”

    Then you’re obviously not trying hard enough, for I find nothing offensive about your comments… 🙂

  23. Eric says:

    Offending somebody was not my motive, but I know some people think they’re being personally attacked if your opinion includes something different from what they deem as the truth.

  24. Emission Nebula says:

    *sigh*. When did any of this become about religion? The old arguement of creationism vs. evolution is getting real old. I seriously think people need to stop worrying about it so much. The bible is not meant to be taken literally. And I admit too many religions try to argue that it should be taken as such. But for those of us who do belive in God, and have thought about beyond the “blind side” of churches preferences, one way is just not correct. Religion and evolution both have just quailities to them. And the science community is actually starting to become very communist about the whole thing. Believing in a Creator is now the new heresy of science. People are losng there jobs for such things now even.
    Dont believe in God? I really dont care. You do? I dont care either. But for the love of whatever it is you love, STOP FIGHTING ABOUT IT! Stop trying to turn a 13.7 billion year old universe as your arguement. Infact if you do a little research, youll find that it was a preist who worked for the Vatican that came up with the theory of a “beginning” to the universe. And the Catholic church actaully uses this theory for their beliefs. SOOOO, using this as your arguement isnt really going to work against religion.
    And Im not here to argue “God is the way”, Im argueing that a scientific finding like this is not the grounds to start an arguement against religion.

    And Im sure many will argue this too. Go ahead, tell me Im wrong. Everyone thinks they know everything. And while your on your high and mighty, know it all rant, just remember: you cant proove anything based on whats visable.

  25. olga says:

    Emission Nebula,

    It is very pleasing to read that the US society is not only a place for extremists.

    Rather the Atheist part nor the creationist part has good arguments in their extremes.

    As a foreigner it is really funny to see a nation struggling so hard to get into the era of emlightenment.

    Plurality is what creates new ideas, but typically it is enough to spread some fear into US and they react like prehistorics.

    Real scientists easily can be sceptics, religious and non religious.
    There are epistemologic limits that no model will overcome – of course.
    And unless science or sciencebabble is no religion placebo this is no problem either.

  26. Matt says:

    Sorry to be picky, but don’t you mean that the probe is in the shadow of the earth, not the sun?

    Seeing as it’s the brightest thing around, the sun isn’t likely to cast much of a shadow.

    🙂

  27. Emission Nebula says:

    I just really think creationism vs. evolution arguement is getting real old, real fast. Why cat we all just live our lives in peace? According to Richard Dawkins, a very well known Athiest, if there was no religion ther would be no wars. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. War nowadays are based on natural resourses and those who control it.

  28. Eric says:

    Emission…R E L A X. Please.

    I feel like I’m more on Carl Sagan’s side of the argument. Basically, what he’s saying is, and I’m sure some if not most of the people reading this now know, there’s no reason why the universe couldn’t have been created by a supreme being and there’s no reason to believe that we’re the only living thing that said being created.

    No matter what the outcome of the scientific studies, I’m glad everything was created – regardless of origin. It would be very boring without any of this. If it turns out to be scientific – HOORAY! If it turns out to be not so much religious, but of divine creation – HOORAY! I’m happy to be alive in this universe.

  29. tacitus says:

    Eric, I think you missed the tongue in cheek part of my post. In your original post you said: “I’m just trying to be objectionable” when I believe you meant to say “I’m just trying to be objective”. That’s all.

    (It’s never as funny when you have to spell it out 🙂 )

  30. Mikel says:

    To tacitus –

    I didn’t realize my lone comments about Dr. Arp constituted “the fringe out in force”.

    I find it interesting that a theory that does not agree with yours is called “fringe”. At least I gave a reference for someone to read up a little on Arp’s point of view…how about a link to a reference about your comment concerning quasars and host galaxies.

    – Mikel

  31. Michael says:

    Thanks for sharing that now let us get on with the real task at hand: discovering or rediscovering ways to live as intelligent life.

  32. eMJay says:

    I, for one, don’t think that the idea of a creator being can ever be discounted or proven by science. If a creator exists, he, or rather, it, would have existed before the universe was created, therefore somehow existing outside the universe itself. Since our science can only make measurements of phenomena inside the universe, it stands to reason that we will never truly be able to prove the existence or non-existence of a creator, since it may well truly be “outside the realm of science”.

  33. Noosh says:

    Uh to be fair, Emission, Dawkins doesn’t state that “if there was no religion there would be no wars”. Have you actually read his book or are you just generalising?

    Rather, he lists a sizable number of wars which WERE fought on purely ideological religious grounds, which one would logically suppose wouldn’t have taken place did religion not exist.

    Sure, there’d still be wars over resources and race and whatever else but there’d be less wars than there are now.

    Eric, there are many reasons to suspect that the universe wasn’t created by a supreme being, even though I concede that it remains possible.

  34. PHWilson says:

    Whew, time to drop the entire term “age of the universe”. Once said, it is as a toggle switch. Science…Religion…Science…Religion. I can’t remember the last time I actually read the OFF or ON printed on a light switch. Just work with the results, not argue which is best on top.

  35. Chuck Lam says:

    I suspect the edge of the observable portion of our universe is about 13.73 billion light years distance in any direction we look. Why the same distance in every direction? Because a red-shift of one creates a threshold that we simply can not see beyond. I believe the day will come in our life time when all we will eventually see with new technology, is a black velvet-like nothing, and why? Because at that point the universal expansion, which I believe is a fact, will cause all matter that passed beyond this edge, due to the limitations of the speed of light, to no longer be visible. Are there a physical laws violated? I don’t think so. I believe what we call the observable universe is just an unimaginable small part of an unbounded whole. The universe is not open, closed, donut shaped or anything theological. It is an unbounded nothing.

  36. James Lord says:

    If all matter and energy started at one point; how can we see outwardly to the edge, when we should be at that edge. Perhaps we are looking back; thinking we are looking out, as in an endless curve, like one would see if one could look at ones own reflection in an endless progression of mirrors, you looking back, at you looking back . Thus at some point causing a shift in spectral light and hence maybe a false but real shift in a sense of time..

  37. Steve says:

    How can redshift both reveal how far something is and how fast it’s moving away? Wouldn’t that violate the uncertainty principle where you cannot both know somethings position and velocity at the same time?

  38. Mek says:

    I think the effect of the uncertainty principle as it relates to larger and larger objects decreases to the point where it is not measurable.

    Otherwise radar use in airports, military jets, police cruisers etc also wouldn’t be able to use the Doppler effect (which IIRC involves a shifting of frequencies as they are bounced off moving objects) to measure velocity and direction.

    Mikel, concerning Arp and him being fringe, a fringe opinion or theory is fringe by virtue of not being in the mainstream. Many of the currently accepted theories were at one time or another fringe, but that is no basis for deciding on their validity as for every fringe theory that is widely accepted there’s a hell of a lot of forgotten fringe theories that have fallen by the wayside.

  39. Mikel says:

    To Mek…

    Yes, I agree with your definition of fringe, but I believe tacitus was using the word “fringe” when he was actually meaning “lunatic fringe”.

    In other words, he was being sarcastic, which just shows his bias.

  40. lol says:

    FOR THE LULZ!

  41. David says:

    Hey, I DO believe in a Creator. I just dont see said Creator as having a vested interest in every thing I do. And I dont see us as an actual creation. More as a by-product of a created set of circumstances.

  42. eMJay says:

    Actually the visible universe is estimated at 46 billion light years in any direction. That figure only represents a tiny portion of the actual size of the universe…the reason why it’s 46 billion and not 13.7 is that the universe has been expanding at the speed of light ever since since the big bang.

    The photon particles being measured are reaching us from matter at the edge of the visible universe 46 billion light years away and they are coming at us from many directions (from matter that actually used to be located much closer to us in fact).Why there? They represent the oldest photons ever, because they were created when the expanding proton and electron plasma universe that was devoid of light for 400000 years after the big bang began to form hydrogen due to cooling (caused by expansion). At that point the first ever photons were created all over the universe and spread across the universe in all directions. They’re still spreading because the universe is expanding as they cross it.

    I sort of use this scenario when i think about it…imagine a man is asked to cross a bridge made out of a giant rubberband held unstretched from end to end. He runs across the bridge but, as he’s running, the bridge is being stretched and lengthens at a rate equal to the rate at which he travels across it…it can be seen that as he travels, the total distance he needs to travel gets longer with time…therefore he takes a much much longer time to cross the rubberband bridge than if the bridge was never stretched in the first place.

    I saw an estimate which indicated that, at the time these photons that we are now measuring left the mass that they were emitted from (now the galaxies at the edge of visible space), the distance between the distant mass and the mass that formed earth was only about 40 million light years. Since then the distance has expanded to more than 46 billion light years!!!

    The photons will continue to reach us as the visible universe expands and will allow us to calculate increasingly accurate estimations of the age of the universe as long as we continue to measure them.

  43. Hugh Massengill says:

    In our arrogance we assume that what we see is all that exists. What if the speed of light is in fact variable? At the big bang a lot of the matter would have gone very far, very fast.
    Today, our “Universe” is speeding up as we are now being attracted to that “hidden, higher light speed matter”. And they are slowing down, to their amazement, as they interact with our “universe” built with a lower speed of light.
    As Calvin (of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame) says, genius is often unappreciated by those with deficient imaginations.

  44. eMJay says:

    Hugh Massengill :

    That’s very true. We never saw the concept of dark matter and dark energy until we had no choice but to accept that things happening out there were not fitting the predictions…perhaps dark matter is really just areas of super-dense space-time…anything passing through it slows down, including light itself…

    there must be a reason why the universe expansion is increasing in velocity. I’m sure we are only scratching the surface, if at all.

  45. yes sciencebabble allows easily esoteric exegesis.
    Ian is the high priest of dark matter, dark energy and black hole babbling.
    Dont miss his next black hole DM article as a devotion to the sciencebabble religion.

    Damn you are right. The old fashioned religions are so boring with their commandments.
    sciencebabble allows to speculate and medidate without the need to follow rules.

    Great

  46. Eric says:

    Could an increase in expansion velocity be linked to galaxies getting further away from eachother with less effects from gravity or would most people venture to say it’s just that the further away from the point of origin the forward momentum is getting stronger?

  47. Eric says:

    If that ^ makes any sense.

  48. belinda birdleg says:

    It sounds beautiful to me.
    Now Ian should write an article about it.
    I love his articles.
    He can explain everithing right.
    Also Eric’s great idea.
    Or is it already a theory ?
    Ian, please explain for me.

  49. Alex says:

    Eric,

    Our galaxy is moving through the universe. This can be measured by looking at the cosmic background radiation. That gives us the speed and direction.

    From there, it is easy to correct for this when measuring redshift’s of other galaxies.

  50. Markus says:

    The scary thing is that half of the religious folk here in the states don’t believe in world older than 6000 years.

  51. Eric says:

    Alex, I’m not disputing the fact that the galaxy is moving through the universe. I understand that and fully believe that. I asked a question and instead of getting an answer I’m just getting redshift, redshift and oh, more redshift. I guess that’s par for the course because any little thing I’ve brought up as an idea – not in opposition to widely believed theories, but as just basic thoughts – has gotten me nothing.

    Markus, have you heard or seen the clip from “The View” where one of the women on the show said that nothing preceded Jesus or that she never thought about whether the Earth was flat or round, but only worried about how she was going to feed her child.

  52. p tanwani says:

    i agree with dave

  53. ridiculous says:

    How many of you have even studied at the level which you criticize?

    Trust me, you haven’t room for debate because you aren’t in the same league. Interesting thoughts about the redshift, where did you hear them from? I bet you couldn’t have come up with them on your own.

    You let your favorite scientists tell you what to think and you believe them no matter what their reasons are because you aren’t scientists yourselves and are incapable of understanding anything about the laws of nature.

    You have the right to believe whatever you want, and you are not ignorant if you remain skeptical of popular science. But don’t pretend you understand and start debating because you will lose if you don’t have the education.

    Please stop giving your own cause a bad reputation by your ignorant flames. Investigate the matter using your own brain and then you can begin to ask questions. Are you searching for understanding and knowledge, or are you just trying to prove that you don’t know how to use the brain that God gave you?

    Stop being stupid!

  54. Jameylynne says:

    I wonder why no one has considered that calculation of the age of the universe is dependent on the actual size of the universe, not just the small part we can see. If, in the interest of mediocrity, we suppose that the observible universe is half of what there is, then the universe is 27.46 billion years old plus or minus 240 million years.

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