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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A Radio Telescope on the Moon Could Help Us Understand the First 50 Million Years of the Universe

Artist's illustration of a radio telescope inside a crater on the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the coming decade, multiple space agencies and commercial space providers are determined to return astronauts to the Moon and build the necessary infrastructure for long-duration stays there. This includes the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp, a collaborative effort led by NASA with support from the ESA, CSA, and JAXA, and the Russo-Chinese International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). In addition, several agencies are exploring the possibility of building a radio observatory on the far side of the Moon, where it could operate entirely free of radio interference.

For years, researchers have advocated for such an observatory because of the research that such an observatory would enable. This includes the ability to study the Universe during the early “Cosmic Dark Ages,” even before the first stars and galaxies formed (about 50 million years after the Big Bang). While there have been many predictions about what kind of science a lunar-based radio observatory could perform, a new research study from Tel Aviv University has predicted (for the first time) what groundbreaking results this observatory could actually obtain.

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New Telescopes to Study the Aftermath of the Big Bang

A photograph of a CMB-S4 detector wafer being prepared for testing in a cryostat at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Credit: Thor Swift/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Astronomers are currently pushing the frontiers of astronomy. At this very moment, observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are visualizing the earliest stars and galaxies in the Universe, which formed during a period known as the “Cosmic Dark Ages.” This period was previously inaccessible to telescopes because the Universe was permeated by clouds of neutral hydrogen. As a result, the only light is visible today as relic radiation from the Big Bang – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – or as the 21 cm spectral line created by the reionization of hydrogen (aka. the Hydrogen Line).

Now that the veil of the Dark Ages is being slowly pulled away, scientists are contemplating the next frontier in astronomy and cosmology by observing “primordial gravitational waves” created by the Big Bang. In recent news, it was announced that the National Science Foundation (NSF) had awarded $3.7 million to the University of Chicago, the first part of a grant that could reach up to $21.4 million. The purpose of this grant is to fund the development of next-generation telescopes that will map the CMB and the gravitational waves created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.


Colliding Neutron Stars Could Help Measure the Expansion of the Universe

Artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding, known as a "kilonova" event. Credits: Elizabeth Wheatley (STScI)

According to some in the astrophysical community, there has been something of a “Crisis in Cosmology” in recent years. Though astronomers are all aware that the Universe is in a state of expansion, there has been some inconsistency when measuring the rate of it (aka. the Hubble Constant). This issue arises from the Cosmic Distance Ladder, where astronomers use different methods to measure relative distances over longer scales. This includes making local distance estimates using parallax measurements, nearby variable stars, and supernovae (“standard candles”).

They also conduct redshift measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang, to determine cosmological distances. The discrepancy between these two methods is known as the “Hubble Tension,” and astronomers are eager to resolve it. In a recent study, an international team of astrophysicists from the Niels Bohr Institute suggested a novel method for measuring cosmic expansion. They argue that by observing colliding neutron stars (kilonovae), astronomers can relieve the tension and obtain consistent measurements of the Hubble Constant.

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Another New Way to Measure Distance in the Universe: Baryon Acoustic Oscillations

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

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.

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The First Light in the Universe Helps Build a Dark Matter Map

A view of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies from the James Webb Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

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.

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Could a Dark Energy Phase Change Relieve the Hubble Tension?

This illustration shows three steps astronomers used to measure the universe's expansion rate (Hubble constant) to an unprecedented accuracy, reducing the total uncertainty to 2.3 percent. The measurements streamline and strengthen the construction of the cosmic distance ladder, which is used to measure accurate distances to galaxies near to and far from Earth. The latest Hubble study extends the number of Cepheid variable stars analyzed to distances of up to 10 times farther across our galaxy than previous Hubble results. Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Feild (STScI), and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)

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.

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Perhaps a Supervoid Doesn’t Explain the Mysterious CMB Cold Spot

The Cosmic Microwave Background's (CMB) "Cold Spot" - a section that is colder than its surroundings. Credit: WMAP Science Team, NASA

For years cosmologists had thought that a strange feature appearing in the microwave sky, known as the CMB cold spot, was due to the light passing through a giant supervoid. But new research casts that conclusion into doubt.

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“Early Dark Energy” Could Explain the Crisis in Cosmology

A diagram of the evolution of the observable universe. The Dark Ages are the object of study in this new research, and were preceded by the CMB, or Afterglow Light Pattern. By NASA/WMAP Science Team - Original version: NASA; modified by Cherkash, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11885244
A diagram of the evolution of the observable universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP/Wikimedia

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.

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Scroll Through the Universe with This Cool Interactive Map

Expansion of the Universe (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) continues to pad its space community résumé with their interactive map, “The map of the observable Universe”, that takes viewers on a 13.7-billion-year-old tour of the cosmos from the present to the moments after the Big Bang. While JHU is responsible for creating the site, additional contributions were made by NASA, the European Space Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation.

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