New map of the Big Bang’s afterglow shows the universe is older than we thought

Scott Sutherland

Using data from the ESA's Planck Space Telescope, an international team of scientists have produced the best map yet of the earliest light in the universe — the Cosmic Microwave Background — and this new picture of what the universe was like shortly after the Big Bang is revising what we know about the its age, its contents, and perhaps even its origins.

"Astronomers worldwide have been on the edge of their seats waiting for this map," said Joan Centrella, Planck program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These measurements are profoundly important to many areas of science, as well as future space missions. We are so pleased to have worked with the European Space Agency on such a historic endeavor."

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The Cosmic Microwave Background is a thermal 'glow' that can be detected with radio telescopes, and is nearly uniform across the observable universe. It is, essentially, a snapshot of what the universe looked like when it was just 370,000 years old. By taking careful measurements of what this snapshot looks like, and examining the patterns, astronomers can figure out some very fundamental characteristics of the universe, such as what it's made of and how old it is.

"As that ancient light travels to us, matter acts like an obstacle course getting in its way and changing the patterns slightly," said Charles Lawrence, a Relativistic Astrophysicist with NASA's Planck group. "The Planck map reveals not only the very young universe, but also matter, including dark matter, everywhere in the universe."

This new map shows that the universe is actually expanding slower than we previously thought, and thus it's older — 80 million years older, to be more exact — putting its age from 13.72 billion years to 13.8 billion years. It also reveals that there is more matter (both normal and dark matter) and less dark energy in the universe. Dark energy is the mysterious force behind the expansion of the universe, and dark matter is an equally-mysterious form of matter that is invisible except for the effects of its gravity.

The data from this map now allow scientists to test some of their basic ideas about the universe, such as inflation — where after the tiniest fraction of a second after the Big Bang, gravity became repulsive rather than attractive, and as a result, in another tiniest fraction of a second, the universe expanded to trillions of trillions of times its size. The patterns revealed in the new map show the random minute-scale processes that were at work in the very early universe, magnified by the process of inflation, which can then be connected to the formation of the all the galaxies and galactic structures we now see in the universe.

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Also, it gives a more accurate way to test the standard model of cosmology. In this case, the data has provided some key support for the model, but there are also some strange structures that don't fit with the model.

"On one hand, we have a simple model that fits our observations extremely well, but on the other hand, we see some strange features which force us to rethink some of our basic assumptions," said Jan Tauber, a Project Scientist for the ESA Planck mission. "This is the beginning of a new journey, and we expect our continued analysis of Planck data will help shed light on this conundrum."

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