Measuring cosmic distances is a major challenge thanks to the fact that we live in a relativistic Universe. When astronomers observe distant objects, they are not just looking through space but also back in time. In addition, the cosmos has been expanding ever since it was born in the Big Bang, and that expansion is accelerating. Astronomers typically rely on one of two methods to measure cosmic distances (known as the Cosmic Distance Ladder). On the one hand, astronomers rely on redshift measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to determine cosmological distances.
Conversely, they will rely on local observations using parallax measurements, variable stars, and supernovae. Unfortunately, there is a discrepancy between redshift measurements of the CMB and local measurements, leading to what is known as the Hubble Tension. To address this, a team of astronomers from several Chinese universities and the University of Cordoba conducted a two-year statistical analysis of one million galaxies. From this, they’ve developed a new technique that relies on Baryon Acoustic Oscillations (BAO) to determine distances with a greater degree of precision.
In the 1960s, astronomers began noticing a pervasive microwave background visible in all directions. Thereafter known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the existence of this relic radiation confirmed the Big Bang theory, which posits that all matter was condensed onto a single point of infinite density and extreme heat that began expanding ca. 13.8 years ago. By measuring the CMB for redshift and comparing these to local distance measurements (using variable stars and supernovae), astronomers have sought to measure the rate at which the Universe is expanding.
Around the same time, scientists observed that the rotational curves of galaxies were much higher than their visible mass suggested. This meant that either Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was wrong or the Universe was filled with a mysterious, invisible mass. In a new series of papers, members of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) collaboration have used background light from the CMB to create a new map of Dark Matter distribution that covers a quarter of the sky and extends deep into the cosmos. This map confirms General Relativity and its predictions for how mass alters the curvature of spacetime.
According to the most widely-accepted cosmological theories, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang. Ever since then, the Universe has been in a constant state of expansion, what astrophysicists know as the Hubble Constant. For decades, astronomers have attempted to measure the rate of expansion, which has traditionally been done in two ways. One consists of measuring expansion locally using variable stars and supernovae, while the other involves cosmological models and redshift measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).
Unfortunately, these two methods have produced different values over the past decade, giving rise to what is known as the Hubble Tension. To resolve this discrepancy, astronomers believe that some additional force (like “Early Dark Energy“) may have been present during the early Universe that we haven’t accounted for yet. According to a team of particle physicists, the Hubble Tension could be resolved by a “New Early Dark Energy” (NEDE) in the early Universe. This energy, they argue, would have experienced a phase transition as the Universe began to expand, then disappeared.
In 1916, Einstein finished his Theory of General Relativity, which describes how gravitational forces alter the curvature of spacetime. Among other things, this theory predicted that the Universe is expanding, which was confirmed by the observations of Edwin Hubble in 1929. Since then, astronomers have looked farther into space (and hence, back in time) to measure how fast the Universe is expanding – aka. the Hubble Constant. These measurements have become increasingly accurate thanks to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronomers have traditionally done this in two ways: directly measuring it locally (using variable stars and supernovae) and indirectly based on redshift measurements of the CMB and cosmological models. Unfortunately, these two methods have produced different values over the past decade. As a result, astronomers have been looking for a possible solution to this problem, known as the “Hubble Tension.” According to a new paper by a team of astrophysicists, the existence of “Early Dark Energy” may be the solution cosmologists have been looking for.
According to our current Cosmological models, the Universe began with a Big Bang roughly 13.8 billion years ago. During the earliest periods, the Universe was permeated by an opaque cloud of hot plasma, preventing atoms from forming. About 380,000 years later, the Universe began to cool and much of the energy generated by the Big Bang converted into light. This afterglow is now visible to astronomers as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), first observed during the 1960s.
One peculiar characteristic about the CMB that attracted a lot of attention was the tiny fluctuations in temperature, which could provide information about the early Universe. In particular, there is a rather large spot in the CMB that is cooler than the surrounding afterglow, known as the CMB Cold Spot. After decades of studying the CMB’s temperature fluctuations, a team of scientists recently confirmed the existence of the largest cold spots in the CMB afterglow – the Eridanus Supervoid – might be the explanation for the CMB Cold Spot that astronomers have been looking for!
Since the “Golden Age of General Relativity” in the 1960s, scientists have held that much of the Universe consists of a mysterious invisible mass known as “Dark Matter“. Since then, scientists have attempted to resolve this mystery with a double-pronged approach. On the one hand, astrophysicists have attempted to find a candidate particle that could account for this mass.
On the other, astrophysicists have tried to find a theoretical basis that could explain Dark Matter’s behavior. So far, the debate has centered on the question of whether it is “hot” or “cold”, with cold enjoying an edge because of its relative simplicity. However, a new study conducted led by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) revits the idea that Dark Matter might actually be “warm”.
Back in 2013, the European Space Agency released its first analysis of the data gathered by the Planck observatory. Between 2009 and 2013, this spacecraft observed the remnants of the radiation that filled the Universe immediately after the Big Bang – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – with the highest sensitivity of any mission to date and in multiple wavelengths.
In addition to largely confirming current theories on how the Universe evolved, Planck’s first map also revealed a number of temperature anomalies – like the CMB “Cold Spot” – that are difficult to explain. Unfortunately, with the latest analysis of the mission data, the Planck Collaboration team has found no new evidence for these anomalies, which means that astrophysicists are still short of an explanation.
According to the Big Bang cosmological model, our Universe began 13.8 billion years ago when all the matter and energy in the cosmos began expanding. This period of “cosmic inflation” is believed to be what accounts for the large-scale structure of the Universe and why space and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) appear to be largely uniform in all directions.
However, to date, no evidence has been discovered that can definitely prove the cosmic inflation scenario or rule out alternative theories. But thanks to a new study by a team of astronomers from Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), scientists may have a new means of testing one of the key parts of the Big Bang cosmological model.
For thousands of years, human being have been contemplating the Universe and seeking to determine its true extent. And whereas ancient philosophers believed that the world consisted of a disk, a ziggurat or a cube surrounded by celestial oceans or some kind of ether, the development of modern astronomy opened their eyes to new frontiers. By the 20th century, scientists began to understand just how vast (and maybe even unending) the Universe really is.
And in the course of looking farther out into space, and deeper back in time, cosmologists have discovered some truly amazing things. For example, during the 1960s, astronomers became aware of microwave background radiation that was detectable in all directions. Known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the existence of this radiation has helped to inform our understanding of how the Universe began. Continue reading “What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?”
For decades, scientists have theorized that beyond the edge of the Solar System, at a distance of up to 50,000 AU (0.79 ly) from the Sun, there lies a massive cloud of icy planetesimals known as the Oort Cloud. Named in honor of Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, this cloud is believed to be where long-term comets originate from. However, to date, no direct evidence has been provided to confirm the Oort Cloud’s existence.
This is due to the fact that the Oort Cloud is very difficult to observe, being rather far from the Sun and dispersed over a very large region of space. However, in a recent study, a team of astrophysicists from the University of Pennsylvania proposed a radical idea. Using maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) created by the Planck mission and other telescopes, they believe that Oort Clouds around other stars can be detected.
The study – “Probing Oort clouds around Milky Way stars with CMB surveys“, which recently appeared online – was led by Eric J Baxter, a postdoctoral researcher from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. He was joined by Pennsylvania professors Cullen H. Blake and Bhuvnesh Jain (Baxter’s primary mentor).
To recap, the Oort Cloud is a hypothetical region of space that is thought to extend from between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly) from the Sun – though some estimates indicate it could reach as far as 100,000 to 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). Like the Kuiper Belt and the Scattered Disc, the Oort Cloud is a reservoir of trans-Neptunian objects, though it is over a thousands times more distant from our Sun as these other two.
This cloud is believed to have originated from a population of small, icy bodies within 50 AU of the Sun that were present when the Solar System was still young. Over time, it is theorized that orbital perturbations caused by the giant planets caused those objects that had highly-stable orbits to form the Kuiper Belt along the ecliptic plane, while those that had more eccentric and distant orbits formed the Oort Cloud.
According to Baxter and his colleagues, because the existence of the Oort Cloud played an important role in the formation of the Solar System, it is therefore logical to assume that other star systems have their own Oort Clouds – which they refer to as exo-Oort Clouds (EXOCs). As Dr. Baxter explained to Universe Today via email:
“One of the proposed mechanisms for the formation of the Oort cloud around our sun is that some of the objects in the protoplanetary disk of our solar system were ejected into very large, elliptical orbits by interactions with the giant planets. The orbits of these objects were then affected by nearby stars and galactic tides, causing them to depart from orbits restricted to the plane of the solar system, and to form the now-spherical Oort cloud. You could imagine that a similar process could occur around another star with giant planets, and we know that there are many stars out there that do have giant planets.”
As Baxter and his colleagues indicated in their study, detecting EXOCs is difficult, largely for the same reasons for why there is no direct evidence for the Solar System’s own Oort Cloud. For one, there is not a lot of material in the cloud, with estimates ranging from a few to twenty times the mass of the Earth. Second, these objects are very far away from our Sun, which means they do not reflect much light or have strong thermal emissions.
For this reason, Baxter and his team recommended using maps of the sky at the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths to search for signs of Oort Clouds around other stars. Such maps already exist, thanks to missions like the Planck telescope which have mapped the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). As Baxter indicated:
“In our paper, we use maps of the sky at 545 GHz and 857 GHz that were generated from observations by the Planck satellite. Planck was pretty much designed *only* to map the CMB; the fact that we can use this telescope to study exo-Oort clouds and potentially processes connected to planet formation is pretty surprising!”
This is a rather revolutionary idea, as the detection of EXOCs was not part of the intended purpose of the Planck mission. By mapping the CMB, which is “relic radiation” left over from the Big Bang, astronomers have sought to learn more about how the Universe has evolved since the the early Universe – circa. 378,000 years after the Big Bang. However, their study does build on previous work led by Alan Stern (the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission).
In 1991, along with John Stocke (of the University of Colorado, Boulder) and Paul Weissmann (from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Stern conducted a study titled “An IRAS search for extra-solar Oort clouds“. In this study, they suggested using data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) for the purpose of searching for EXOCs. However, whereas this study focused on certain wavelengths and 17 star systems, Baxter and his team relied on data for tens of thousands of systems and at a wider range of wavelengths.
“Furthermore, the Gaia satellite has recently mapped out very accurately the positions and distances of stars in our galaxy,” Baxter added. “This makes choosing targets for exo-Oort cloud searches relatively straightforward. We used a combination of Gaia and Planck data in our analysis.”
To test their theory, Baxter and is team constructed a series of models for the thermal emission of exo-Oort clouds. “These models suggested that detecting exo-Oort clouds around nearby stars (or at least putting limits on their properties) was feasible given existing telescopes and observations,” he said. “In particular, the models suggested that data from the Planck satellite could potentially come close to detecting an exo-Oort cloud like our own around a nearby star.”
In addition, Baxter and his team also detected a hint of a signal around some of the stars that they considered in their study – specifically in the Vega and Formalhaut systems. Using this data, they were able to place constraints on the possible existence of EXOCs at a distance of 10,000 to 100,000 AUs from these stars, which roughly coincides with the distance between our Sun and the Oort Cloud.
However, additional surveys will be needed before the existence any of EXOCs can be confirmed. These surveys will likely involve the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2021. In the meantime, this study has some rather significant implications for astronomers, and not just because it involves the use of existing CMB maps for extra-solar studies. As Baxter put it:
“Just detecting an exo-Oort cloud would be really interesting, since as I mentioned above, we don’t have any direct evidence for the existence of our own Oort cloud. If you did get a detection of an exo-Oort cloud, it could in principle provide insights into processes connected to planet formation and the evolution of protoplanetary disks. For instance, imagine that we only detected exo-Oort clouds around stars that have giant planets. That would provide pretty convincing evidence that the formation of an Oort cloud is connected to giant planets, as suggested by popular theories of the formation of our own Oort cloud.”
As our knowledge of the Universe expands, scientists become increasingly interested in what our Solar System has in common with other star systems. This, in turn, helps us to learn more about the formation and evolution of our own system. It also provides possible hints as to how the Universe changed over time, and maybe even where life could be found someday.