NASA has announced new findings that indicate that the Universe is 13.82 billion years old, which is 100 million years older than previously estimated. These findings were released today by the Planck space mission science team, which has created the most accurate map ever made of the oldest light in the Universe. This map’s data discloses a wealth of new information not only about the Universe’s age, but also about its contents and origin.
So how did scientists come to these conclusions? The European Space Agency's Planck telescope, which was launched in 2009, created an accurate and detailed map of the oldest light in the Universe, pictured above. The telescope does this with highly sensitive detectors that pick up radio waves and microwaves, and it's spent quite a while surveying the entire sky. The map, based on over 15 months of observations, reveals “the cosmic microwave background,” or ancient light from the very early Universe that has traveled billions of years to reach us. Planck’s map shows certain patterns of light that represent the Universe as we know it today: regions with less mass show up as lighter areas, while regions with more mass appear darker.
Charles Lawrence, the U.S. project scientist for Planck at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained, “as that ancient light travels to us, matter acts like an obstacle course getting in its way and changing patterns slightly.”
Details in those patterns have revealed some unexplained anomalies that challenge the standard model of cosmology. This model assumes that if we could look at the entire Universe at once, it roughly appear to be roughly the same everywhere. The new Planck data, however, doesn’t always match the existing model. The light patterns are asymmetrical on two halves of the sky, but there is a spot extending over a particular patch of sky that is larger than expected.
Jan Tauber, the European Space Agency Planck project scientist said, “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.”
For example, the Universe is shown to be expanding at a slower rate, which is what led scientists to re-estimate the age of the Universe. Planck data has also shown that there is less dark matter in our Universe than estimated. Dark matter is an invisible substance that is only detected through the effects of gravity upon it. Unfortunately, as the nature of dark matter still remains mysterious at this point, scientists are unsure of what this new finding could mean.
This new data refines and challenges existing foundations of thought regarding our understanding of the Universe and how it has evolved. “We’re immensely proud to be playing a key role in this amazing discovery,” stated Dr. Chris Castelli, Acting Director of Science, Technology and Exploration at the UK Space Agency. “With its ability to make such detailed and accurate observations, Planck is helping us to place the vital pieces of a jigsaw that could give us a full picture of the evolution of our Universe, rewriting textbooks along the way.”