Dark Energy Illuminated By Largest Galactic Map Ten Years In The Making

In 1929, Edwin Hubble forever changed our understanding of the cosmos by showing that the Universe is in a state of expansion. By the 1990s, astronomers determined that the rate at which it is expanding is actually speeding up, which in turn led to the theory of “Dark Energy“. Since that time, astronomers and physicists have sought to determine the existence of this force by measuring the influence it has on the cosmos.

The latest in these efforts comes from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS III), where an international team of researchers have announced that they have finished creating the most precise measurements of the Universe to date. Known as the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), their measurements have placed new constraints on the properties of Dark Energy.

The new measurements were presented by Harvard University astronomer Daniel Eisenstein at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society. As the director of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), he and his team have spent the past ten years measuring the cosmos and the periodic fluctuations in the density of normal matter to see how galaxies are distributed throughout the Universe.

An illustration of the concept of baryon acoustic oscillations, which are imprinted in the early universe and can still be seen today in galaxy surveys like BOSS (Illustration courtesy of Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield).
An illustration of baryon acoustic oscillations, which are imprinted in the early universe and can still be seen today in galaxy surveys like BOSS. Credit: Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield

And after a decade of research, the BOSS team was able to produce a three-dimensional map of the cosmos that covers more than six billion light-years. And while other recent surveys have looked further afield – up to distances of 9 and 13 billion light years – the BOSS map is unique in that it boasts the highest accuracy of any cosmological map.

In fact, the BOSS team was able to measure the distribution of galaxies in the cosmos, and at a distance of 6 billion light-years, to within an unprecedented 1% margin of error. Determining the nature of cosmic objects at great distances is no easy matter, due the effects of relativity. As Dr. Eisenstein told Universe Today via email:

“Distances are a long-standing challenge in astronomy. Whereas humans often can judge distance because of our binocular vision, galaxies beyond the Milky Way are much too far away to use that. And because galaxies come in a wide range of intrinsic sizes, it is hard to judge their distance. It’s like looking at a far-away mountain; one’s judgement of its distance is tied up with one’s judgement of its height.”

In the past, astronomers have made accurate measurements of objects within the local universe (i.e. planets, neighboring stars, star clusters) by relying on everything from radar to redshift – the degree to which the wavelength of light is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. However, the greater the distance of an object, the greater the degree of uncertainty.

 An artist's concept of the latest, highly accurate measurement of the Universe from BOSS. The spheres show the current size of the "baryon acoustic oscillations" (BAOs) from the early universe, which have helped to set the distribution of galaxies that we see in the universe today. Galaxies have a slight tendency to align along the edges of the spheres — the alignment has been greatly exaggerated in this illustration. BAOs can be used as a "standard ruler" (white line) to measure the distances to all the galaxies in the universe. Credit: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
An artist’s concept of the latest, highly accurate measurement of the Universe from BOSS. Credit: Zosia Rostomian/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

And until now, only objects that are a few thousand light-years from Earth – i.e. within the Milky Way galaxy – have had their distances measured to within a one-percent margin of error. As the largest of the four projects that make up the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), what sets BOSS apart is the fact that it relies primarily on the measurement of what are called “baryon acoustic oscillations” (BAOs).

These are essentially subtle periodic ripples in the distribution of visible baryonic (i.e. normal) matter in the cosmos. As Dr. Daniel Eisenstein explained:

“BOSS measures the expansion of the Universe in two primary ways. The first is by using the baryon acoustic oscillations (hence the name of the survey). Sound waves traveling in the first 400,000 years after the Big Bang create a preferred scale for separations of pairs of galaxies. By measuring this preferred separation in a sample of many galaxies, we can infer the distance to the sample. 

“The second method is to measure how clustering of galaxies differs between pairs oriented along the line of sight compared to transverse to the line of sight. The expansion of the Universe can cause this clustering to be asymmetric if one uses the wrong expansion history when converting redshifts to distance.”

With these new, highly-accurate distance measurements, BOSS astronomers will be able to study the influence of Dark Matter with far greater precision. “Different dark energy models vary in how the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe proceeds over time,” said Eisenstein. “BOSS is measuring the expansion history, which allows us to infer the acceleration rate. We find results that are highly consistent with the predictions of the cosmological constant model, that is, the model in which dark energy has a constant density over time.”

An international team of researchers have produced the largest 3-D map of the universe to date, which validates Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Credit: NAOJ/CFHT/ SDSS
Discerning the large-scale structure of the universe, and the role played by Dark Energy, is key to unlocking its mysteries. Credit: NAOJ/CFHT/ SDSS

In addition to measuring the distribution of normal matter to determine the influence of Dark Energy, the SDSS-III Collaboration is working to map the Milky Way and search for extrasolar planets. The BOSS measurements are detailed in a series of articles that were submitted to journals by the BOSS collaboration last month, all of which are now available online.

And BOSS is not the only effort to understand the large-scale structure of our Universe, and how all its mysterious forces have shaped it. Just last month, Professor Stephen Hawking announced that the COSMOS supercomputing center at Cambridge University would be creating the most detailed 3D map of the Universe to date.

Relying on data obtained by the CMB data obtained by the ESA’s Planck satellite and information from the Dark Energy Survey, they also hope to measure the influence Dark Energy has had on the distribution of matter in our Universe. Who knows? In a few years time, we may very well come to understand how all the fundamental forces governing the Universe work together.

Further Reading: SDSIII

One Percent Measure of the Universe

When it comes to accuracy, everyone strives for a hundred percent, but measuring cosmic distances leaves a bit more to chance. Just days ago, researchers from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) announced to the world that they have been able to measure the distance to galaxies located more than six billion light-years away to a confidence level of just one percent. If this announcement doesn’t seem exciting, then think on what it means to other studies. These new measurements give a parameter to the properties of the ubiquitous “dark energy” – the source of universal expansion.

“There are not many things in our daily lives that we know to one-percent accuracy,” said David Schlegel, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the principal investigator of BOSS. “I now know the size of the universe better than I know the size of my house.”

The research team’s findings were presented at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society by Harvard University astronomer Daniel Eisenstein, the director of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), the worldwide organization which includes BOSS. They are detailed in a series of articles submitted to journals by the BOSS collaboration last month, all of which are now available as online preprints.

“Determining distance is a fundamental challenge of astronomy,” said Eisenstein. “You see something in the sky — how far away is it? Once you know how far away it is, learning everything else about it is suddenly much easier.”

When it comes to measuring distances in space, astronomers have employed many methods. To measure distances to planets has been accomplished using radar, but it has its constraints and going further into space means a less direct method. Even though they have been proved to be amazingly accurate, there is still an uncertainty factor involved – one that is expressed as a percentage. For example, if you were to measure the distance from an object 200 miles away to within a true value of 2 miles, then you have measured with an accuracy of 1%. Cosmically speaking, just a few hundred stars and a handful of star clusters are actually close enough to have their distances so accurately predicted. They reside within the Milky Way and are just a few thousand light-years away. BOSS takes it to the extreme… its measurements go well beyond our galactic boundaries, more than a million times further, and maps the Universe with unparalleled accuracy.

Thanks to these new, highly-accurate distance measurements, BOSS astronomers are making headway in the field of dark energy. “We don’t yet understand what dark energy is,” explained Eisenstein, “but we can measure its properties. Then, we compare those values to what we expect them to be, given our current understanding of the universe. The better our measurements, the more we can learn.”

Just how is it done? To achieve a one-percent measurement at six billion light years isn’t as easy as measuring a solar system object, or even one contained within our galaxy. That’s where the BOSS comes into play. It’s the largest of the four projects that make up the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), and was built to take advantage of this technique: measuring the so-called “baryon acoustic oscillations” (BAOs), subtle periodic ripples in the distribution of galaxies in the cosmos. These ripples are the signature of pressure waves which once cruised the early Universe at a time when things were so hot and dense that photons marched along with baryons – the stuff which creates the nuclei of atoms. Since the size of the ripple is known, that size can now be measured by mapping galaxies.

“With these galaxy measurements, nature has given us a beautiful ruler,” said Ashley Ross, an astronomer from the University of Portsmouth. “The ruler happens to be half a billion light-years long, so we can use it to measure distances precisely, even from very far away.

Using its specialized instrumentation which can make detailed measurements of a thousand galaxies at a time, BOSS took on a huge challenge – mapping the location of more than a million galaxies. “On a clear night when everything goes perfectly, we can add more than 8000 galaxies and quasars to the map,” said Kaike Pan, who leads the team of observers at the SDSS-III’s Sloan Foundation 2.5-meter Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

Although the BOSS research team presented its early galaxy maps and beginning BAO measurements a year ago, this new data covers twice as much territory and gives an even more accurate measurement – including those to nearby galaxies. “Making these measurements at two different distances allows us to see how the expansion of the universe has changed over time, which will help us understand why it is accelerating,” explained University of Portsmouth astronomer Rita Tojeiro, who co-chairs the BOSS galaxy clustering working group along with Jeremy Tinker of New York University.

Also doing a similar study is Mariana Vargas-Magana, a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. To enable even more accuracy, she’s looking into any subtle effects which could influence the BOSS measurements. “When you’re trying to reach one percent, you have to be paranoid about everything that could go even slightly wrong,” said Vargas-Magana — for example, slight differences in how galaxies were identified could have thrown off the entire measurement of their distribution, so different parts of the sky had to be checked carefully. “Fortunately,” Vargas-Magana said, “there are plenty of careful people on our team to check our assumptions. By the time all of them are satisfied, we are sure we didn’t miss anything.”

As of the present, these new BOSS findings would seem to be consistent with what we consider to be form of dark energy – a constant found throughout the history of the Universe. According to the news release, this “cosmological constant” is one of just six numbers required to create a model which coincides with the scale and structure of the Universe. Schlegel compares this six-number model to a pane of glass, which is pinned in place by bolts that represent different measurements of the history of the Universe. “BOSS now has one of the tightest of those bolts, and we just gave it another half-turn,” said Schlegel. “Each time you ratchet up the tension and the glass doesn’t break, that’s a success of the model.”

Original Story Source: Sloan Digital Sky Survey III News Release. For further reading: Max Planck Institute News Release.