Webb Continues to Confirm That Universe is Behaving Strangely

Image of NGC 5468, a galaxy located about 130 million light-years from Earth, combines data from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/A. Riess (JHU/STScI)

Over a century ago, astronomers Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre independently discovered that the Universe was expanding. Since then, scientists have attempted to measure the rate of expansion (known as the Hubble-Lemaitre Constant) to determine the origin, age, and ultimate fate of the Universe. This has proved very daunting, as ground-based telescopes yielded huge uncertainties, leading to age estimates of anywhere between 10 and 20 billion years! This disparity between these measurements, produced by different techniques, gave rise to what is known as the Hubble Tension.

It was hoped that the aptly named Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990) would resolve this tension by providing the deepest views of the Universe to date. After 34 years of continuous service, Hubble has managed to shrink the level of uncertainty but not eliminate it. This led some in the scientific community to suggest (as an Occam’s Razor solution) that Hubble‘s measurements were incorrect. But according to the latest data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Hubble’s successor, it appears that the venerable space telescope’s measurements were right all along.

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Euclid Recovers From a Navigation Problem and Finds its Guide Stars Again

Artist impression of the Euclid mission in space. Credit: ESA

On July 1st, 2023, the ESA’s Euclid mission headed for space, where it began its mission to observe the Universe and measure its expansion over time. The commissioning process began well as the mission team spent weeks testing and calibrating the observatory, then flew the mission out to Lagrange Point 2 (LP2). The telescope focused its mirrors, collected its “first light,” and the first test images it took were breathtaking! Unfortunately, Euclid hit a snag when its Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) failed to lock onto its “guide stars.”

According to the latest update from the ESA, Euclid has found its guide stars again, thanks to a software patch. With its navigation woes now solved and its observation schedule updated, the telescope will now undergo its Performance Verification phase (its final phase of testing) in full “science mode.” Once that’s complete, Euclid will commence its nominal six-year mission, providing razor-sharp images and deep spectra of our Universe, looking back 10 billion years. This data will be used to create a grand survey of one-third of the entire sky and measure the influence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

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ESA's Euclid Mission is Off to Explore the Dark Universe

Artist impression of the Euclid mission in space. Credit: ESA

On Saturday, July 1st (Canada Day!), the ESA’s Euclid space telescope lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. This next-generation astrophysics mission will spend the next few weeks flying to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point, where it will spend the next six years observing one-third of the sky. During that time, Euclid will observe billions of galaxies to a distance of 10 billion light-years, leading to the most extensive 3D map of the Universe ever created. This map will help astronomers and cosmologists resolve the lingering mystery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy (DM & DE).

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Two New Space Telescopes Will Bring Dark Energy Into Focus

High-resolution illustration of the Euclid and Roman spacecraft against a starry background. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, ESA/ATG medialab

Since the 1990s, thanks to observations by the venerable Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers have contemplated the mystery of cosmic expansion. While scientists have known about this since the late-1920s and early-30s, images acquired by Hubble‘s Ultra Deep Fields campaign revealed that the expansion has been accelerating for the past six billion years! This led scientists to reconsider Einstein’s theory that there is an unknown force in the Universe that “holds back gravity,” which he named the Cosmological Constant. To astronomers and cosmologists today, this force is known as “Dark Energy.”

However, not everyone is sold on the idea of Dark Energy, and some believe that cosmic expansion could mean there is a flaw in our understanding of gravity. In the near future, scientists will benefit from next-generation space telescopes to provide fresh insight into this mysterious force. These include the ESA’s Euclid mission, scheduled for launch this July, and NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST), the direct successor to Hubble that will launch in May 2027. Once operational, these space telescopes will investigate these competing theories to see which holds up.

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Are Black Holes the Source of Dark Energy?

An illustration of cosmic expansion. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

By the 1920s, astronomers learned that the Universe was expanding as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted. This led to a debate among astrophysicists between those who believed the Universe began with a Big Bang and those who believed the Universe existed in a Steady State. By the 1960s, the first measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) indicated that the former was the most likely scenario. And by the 1990s, the Hubble Deep Fields provided the deepest images of the Universe ever taken, revealing galaxies as they appeared just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

Over time, these discoveries led to an astounding realization: the rate at which the Universe is expanding (aka. the Hubble Constant) has not been constant over time! This led to the theory of Dark Energy, an invisible force that counteracts gravity and causes this expansion to accelerate. In a series of papers, an international team of researchers led by the University of Hawaii reported that black holes in ancient and dormant galaxies were growing more than expected. This constitutes (they claim) the first evidence that black holes could be the source of Dark Energy.

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A Particle Physics Experiment Might Have Directly Observed Dark Energy

An illustration of cosmic expansion. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

About 25 years ago, astrophysicists noticed something very interesting about the Universe. The fact that it was in a state of expansion had been known since the 1920s, thanks to the observation of Edwin Hubble. But thanks to the observations astronomers were making with the space observatory that bore his name (the Hubble Space Telescope), they began to notice how the rate of cosmic expansion was getting faster!

This has led to the theory that the Universe is filled with an invisible and mysterious force, known as Dark Energy (DE). Decades after it was proposed, scientists are still trying to pin down this elusive force that makes up about 70% of the energy budget of the Universe. According to a recent study by an international team of researchers, the XENON1T experiment may have already detected this elusive force, opening new possibilities for future DE research.

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NASA Continues to Try and Rescue Failing Hubble

Will China's new space telescope out-perform the Hubble? Image:
The Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

Things are not looking very good for the Hubble Space Telescope right now. On Sunday, June 13th, the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working, prompting the main computer to put the telescope into safe mode. While the telescope itself and its science instruments remain in working order, science operations have been suspended until the operations team can figure out how to get the payload computer back online.

While attempting to restart the computer, the operations team has also tried to trace the issue to specific components in the payload computer and switch to their backup modules. As of June 30th, the team began looking into the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the Power Control Unit (PCU). Meanwhile, NASA is busy preparing and testing procedures to switch to backup hardware if either of these components are the culprit.

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A Dark Matter map of our Local Cosmic Neighborhood

Simulation of dark matter and gas. Credit: Illustris Collaboration (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since it was first theorized in the 1970s, astrophysicists and cosmologists have done their best to resolve the mystery that is Dark Matter. This invisible mass is believed to make up 85% of the matter in the Universe and accounts for 27% of its mass-energy density. But more than that, it also provides the large-scale skeletal structure of the Universe (the cosmic web), which dictates the motions of galaxies and material because of its gravitational influence.

Unfortunately, the mysterious nature of Dark Matter means that astronomers cannot study it directly, thus prevented them from measuring its distribution. However, it is possible to infer its distribution based on the observable influence its gravity has on local galaxies and other celestial objects. Using cutting-edge machine-learning techniques, a team of Korean-American astrophysicists was able to produce the most detailed map yet of the local Universe that shows what the “cosmic web” looks like.

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Astronomers Improve Their Distance Scale for the Universe. Unfortunately, it Doesn't Resolve the Crisis in Cosmology

The accuracy of Gaia distance measurements. Credit: ESA

Measuring the expansion of the universe is hard. For one thing, because the universe is expanding, the scale of your distance measurements affects the scale of the expansion. And since light from distant galaxies takes time to reach us, you can’t measure what the universe is, but rather what it was. Then there is the challenge of the cosmic distance ladder.

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Gravitational lenses could be the key to measuring the expansion rate of the Universe

Illustration of gravity waves from a neutron star merger. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

One of the tenets of our cosmological model is that the universe is expanding. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, space itself is stretching over time. It’s a strange idea to wrap your head around, but the evidence for it is conclusive. It is not simply that galaxies appear to be moving away from us, as seen by their redshift. Distant galaxies also appear larger than they should due to cosmic expansion. They are also distributed in superclusters separated by large voids. Then there is the cosmic microwave background, where even its small fluctuations in temperature confirm cosmic expansion.

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