Spitzer Provides Most Precise Measurement Yet of the Universe’s Expansion

This graph illustrates the Cepheid period-luminosity relationship, which scientists use to calculate the size, age and expansion rate of the Universe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Carnegie

How fast is our Universe expanding? Over the decades, there have been different estimates used and heated debates over those approximations, but now data from the Spitzer Space Telescope have provided the most precise measurement yet of the Hubble constant, or the rate at which our universe is stretching apart. The result? The Universe is getting bigger a little bit faster than previously thought.

The newly refined value for the Hubble constant is 74.3 plus or minus 2.1 kilometers per second per megaparsec.

The most previous estimation came from a study from the Hubble Space Telescope, at 74.2 plus or minus 3.6 kilometers per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years.

To make the new measurements, Spitzer scientists looked at pulsating stars called cephied variable stars, taking advantage of being able to observe them in long-wavelength infrared light. In addition, the findings were combined with previously published data from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) on dark energy. The new determination brings the uncertainty down to 3 percent, a giant leap in accuracy for cosmological measurements, scientists say.

WMAP obtained an independent measurement of dark energy, which is thought to be winning a battle against gravity, pulling the fabric of the universe apart. Research based on this acceleration garnered researchers the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

The Hubble constant is named after the astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, who astonished the world in the 1920s by confirming our universe has been expanding since it exploded into being 13.7 billion years ago. In the late 1990s, astronomers discovered the expansion is accelerating, or speeding up over time. Determining the expansion rate is critical for understanding the age and size of the universe.

“This is a huge puzzle,” said the lead author of the new study, Wendy Freedman of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena. “It’s exciting that we were able to use Spitzer to tackle fundamental problems in cosmology: the precise rate at which the universe is expanding at the current time, as well as measuring the amount of dark energy in the universe from another angle.” Freedman led the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope study that earlier had measured the Hubble constant.

Glenn Wahlgren, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said the better views of cepheids enabled Spitzer to improve on past measurements of the Hubble constant.

“These pulsating stars are vital rungs in what astronomers call the cosmic distance ladder: a set of objects with known distances that, when combined with the speeds at which the objects are moving away from us, reveal the expansion rate of the universe,” said Wahlgren.

Cepheids are crucial to the calculations because their distances from Earth can be measured readily. In 1908, Henrietta Leavitt discovered these stars pulse at a rate directly related to their intrinsic brightness.

To visualize why this is important, imagine someone walking away from you while carrying a candle. The farther the candle traveled, the more it would dim. Its apparent brightness would reveal the distance. The same principle applies to cepheids, standard candles in our cosmos. By measuring how bright they appear on the sky, and comparing this to their known brightness as if they were close up, astronomers can calculate their distance from Earth.

Spitzer observed 10 cepheids in our own Milky Way galaxy and 80 in a nearby neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Without the cosmic dust blocking their view, the Spitzer research team was able to obtain more precise measurements of the stars’ apparent brightness, and thus their distances. These data opened the way for a new and improved estimate of our universe’s expansion rate.

“Just over a decade ago, using the words ‘precision’ and ‘cosmology’ in the same sentence was not possible, and the size and age of the universe was not known to better than a factor of two,” said Freedman. “Now we are talking about accuracies of a few percent. It is quite extraordinary.”

“Spitzer is yet again doing science beyond what it was designed to do,” said project scientist Michael Werner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Werner has worked on the mission since its early concept phase more than 30 years ago. “First, Spitzer surprised us with its pioneering ability to study exoplanet atmospheres,” said Werner, “and now, in the mission’s later years, it has become a valuable cosmology tool.”

The study appears in the Astrophysical Journal.

Paper on arXiv: A Mid-Infrared Calibration of the Hubble Constant

Source: JPL

Using Gravitational Lensing to Measure Age and Size of Universe

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Handy little tool, this gravitational lensing! Astronomers have used it to measure the shape of stars, look for exoplanets, and measure dark matter in distant galaxies. Now its being used to measure the size and age of the Universe. Researchers say this new use of gravitation lensing provides a very precise way to measure how rapidly the universe is expanding. The measurement determines a value for the Hubble constant, which indicates the size of the universe, and confirms the age of Universe as 13.75 billion years old, within 170 million years. The results also confirm the strength of dark energy, responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Gravitational lensing occurs when two galaxies happen to aligned with one another along our line of sight in the sky. The gravitational field of the nearer galaxy distorts the image of the more distant galaxy into multiple arc-shaped images. Sometimes this effect even creates a complete ring, known as an “Einstein Ring.”
Researchers at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) used gravitational lensing to measure the distances light traveled from a bright, active galaxy to the earth along different paths. By understanding the time it took to travel along each path and the effective speeds involved, researchers could infer not just how far away the galaxy lies but also the overall scale of the universe and some details of its expansion.

Distinguishing distances in space is difficult. A bright light far away and a dimmer source lying much closer can look like they are at the same distance. A gravitational lens circumvents this problem by providing multiple clues as to the distance light travels. That extra information allows them to determine the size of the universe, often expressed by astrophysicists in terms of a quantity called Hubble’s constant.

“We’ve known for a long time that lensing is capable of making a physical measurement of Hubble’s constant,” KIPAC’s Phil Marshall said. However, gravitational lensing had never before been used in such a precise way. This measurement provides an equally precise measurement of Hubble’s constant as long-established tools such as observation of supernovae and the cosmic microwave background. “Gravitational lensing has come of age as a competitive tool in the astrophysicist’s toolkit,” Marshall said.

When a large nearby object, such as a galaxy, blocks a distant object, such as another galaxy, the light can detour around the blockage. But instead of taking a single path, light can bend around the object in one of two, or four different routes, thus doubling or quadrupling the amount of information scientists receive. As the brightness of the background galaxy nucleus fluctuates, physicists can measure the ebb and flow of light from the four distinct paths, such as in the B1608+656 system that was the subject of this study. Lead author on the study Sherry Suyu, from the University of Bonn, said, “In our case, there were four copies of the source, which appear as a ring of light around the gravitational lens.”

Though researchers do not know when light left its source, they can still compare arrival times. Marshall likens it to four cars taking four different routes between places on opposite sides of a large city, such as Stanford University to Lick Observatory, through or around San Jose. And like automobiles facing traffic snarls, light can encounter delays, too.

“The traffic density in a big city is like the mass density in a lens galaxy,” Marshall said. “If you take a longer route, it need not lead to a longer delay time. Sometimes the shorter distance is actually slower.”

The gravitational lens equations account for all the variables such as distance and density, and provide a better idea of when light left the background galaxy and how far it traveled.

In the past, this method of distance estimation was plagued by errors, but physicists now believe it is comparable with other measurement methods. With this technique, the researchers have come up with a more accurate lensing-based value for Hubble’s constant, and a better estimation of the uncertainty in that constant. By both reducing and understanding the size of error in calculations, they can achieve better estimations on the structure of the lens and the size of the universe.

There are several factors scientists still need to account for in determining distances with lenses. For example, dust in the lens can skew the results. The Hubble Space Telescope has infra-red filters useful for eliminating dust effects. The images also contain information about the number of galaxies lying around the line of vision; these contribute to the lensing effect at a level that needs to be taken into account.

Marshall says several groups are working on extending this research, both by finding new systems and further examining known lenses. Researchers are already aware of more than twenty other astronomical systems suitable for analysis with gravitational lensing.

These results of this study was published in the March 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The researchers used data collected by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and showed the improved precision they provide in combination with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).

Source: SLAC

Hubble’s Law

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“The distance to objects beyond the Local Group is closely related to how fast they seem to be receding from us,” that’s Hubble’s law in a nutshell.

Edwin Hubble, the astronomer the Hubble Space Telescope is named after, first described the relationship which later bore his name in a paper in 1929; here is one of the ways he described it, in that paper: “The data in the table [of “nebulae”, i.e. galaxies] indicate a linear correlation between distances and velocities“; in numerical form, v = Hd (v is the speed at which a distant object is receding from us, d is its distance, and H is the Hubble constant).

Today the Hubble law is usually expressed as a relationship between redshift and distance, partly because redshift is what astronomers can measure directly.

Hubble’s Law, which is an empirical relationship, was the first concrete evidence that Einstein’s theory of General Relativity applied to the universe as a whole, as proposed only two years earlier by Georges Lemaître (interestingly, Lemaître’s paper also includes an estimate of the Hubble constant!); the universal applicability of General Relativity is the heart of the Big Bang theory, and the way we see the predicted expansion of space is as the speed at which things seem to be receding being proportional to their distance, i.e. Hubble’s Law.

Although other astronomers, such as Vesto Silpher, did much of the work needed to measure the galaxy redshifts, Hubble was the one who developed techniques for estimating the distance to the galaxies, and who pulled it all together to show how distance and speed were related.

Hubble’s Law is not exact; the measured redshift of some galaxies is different from what Hubble’s Law says it should be, given their distances. This is particularly noticeable for galaxy clusters, and is explained as the motion of galaxies within their local groups or clusters, due to their mutual gravitation.

Because the exact value of the Hubble constant, H, is so important in extragalactic astronomy and cosmology – it leads to an estimate of the age of the universe, helps test theories of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and much more – a great deal of effort has gone into working it out. Today it is estimated to be 71 kilometers per second per megaparsec, plus or minus 7; this is about 21 km/sec per million light-years. What does this mean? An object a million light-years away would be receding from us at 21 km/sec; an object 10 million light-years away, 210 km/sec, etc.

Perhaps the most dramatic revision to the Hubble Law came in 1998, when two teams independently announced that they’d discovered that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating; the shorthand name for this observation is Dark Energy.

Harvard University’s Professor of Cosmology John Huchra maintains a webpage on the history of the Hubble constant, and this page from Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial explains how the Hubble law and cosmology are related.

There are several Universe Today stories about the Hubble relationship and the Hubble constant; for example Astronomers Closing in on Dark Energy with Refined Hubble Constant, and Cosmologists Improve on Standard Candles Measurement.

And we have done some Astronomy Casts on it too, How Old is the Universe? and, How Big is the Universe?

Sources:
UT-Knoxville
NASA
Cornell Astronomy