Planck space mission maps out oldest light in universe

21 Mar 2013

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Cosmic microwave background seen by Planck, based on the initial 15.5 months of data from Planck. Photo via ESA and the Planck Collaboration

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The universe is 13.8bn years old, 100m years older than previous estimates, a new map of the oldest light in the universe by the European Space Agency mission Planck has revealed.

The map, which US space agency NASA deems as the most accurate and detailed map ever made of the oldest light in the universe, reveals new information about the universe’s age, contents and origins.

NASA contributed technology for both of Planck’s science instruments. US, European and Canadian scientists also worked together to analyse the Planck data, which suggests the universe is expanding more slowly than scientists thought and it contains less dark energy and more normal and dark matter than previously known.

Dark matter is an invisible substance that can only be seen through the effects of its gravity, while dark energy is pushing our universe apart, NASA said. The nature of both is still unknown.

“Astronomers worldwide have been on the edge of their seats waiting for this map,” said Joan Centrella, Planck programme scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. “These measurements are profoundly important to many areas of science, as well as future space missions.”

Temperature changes in cosmic microwave background

The map, based on the mission’s first 15.5 months of all-sky observations, reveals tiny temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, light that has travelled for billions of years from the very early universe to reach us, NASA said. The patterns of light represent the seeds of galaxies and clusters of galaxies we see now.

Charles Lawrence, the US project scientist for Planck at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explained that as that ancient light travels to us, matter acts like an obstacle course getting in its way and slightly changing the patterns.

“The Planck map reveals not only the very young universe, but also matter, including dark matter, everywhere in the universe,” Lawrence said.

Planck launched in 2009 and since then has been mapping the cosmic microwave background, the remainder of the theorised big bang that created the universe. This radiation provides scientists with a snapshot of the universe 370,000 years after the big bang, said NASA.

Planck is scanning the skies and complete results from the mission will be released in 2014.

Tina held senior editorial positions at daily newspapers in Ottawa and Toronto