Astronomers released the latest and most exquisite baby picture yet of the universe Thursday, one that showed it to be 80 million to 100 million years older and a little fatter, with more light and dark matter than previously thought, and perhaps ever-so-slightly lopsided.
Recorded by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, the image is a heat map of the cosmos as it appeared 370,000 years after the Big Bang, showing space speckled with faint spots from which galaxies would grow over billions of years. The multicolored map shows the tiny temperature fluctuations that reveal the seeds of the universe’s future structure.
The map, the Planck team said in news conferences and in 29 papers posted online Thursday, is in stunning agreement with the general view of the universe that has emerged during the past 20 years, of a cosmos dominated by dark energy that is pushing it apart and dark matter that is pulling galaxies together. It also shows a universe that seems to have endured an explosive burp known as inflation, which was the dynamite in the Big Bang.
In a statement issued by the European Space Agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain, its director-general, said: “The extraordinary quality of Planck’s portrait of the infant universe allows us to peel back its layers to the very foundations, revealing that our blueprint of the cosmos is far from complete.”
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Marc Kamionkowski, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University who commented on the work at a news conference sponsored by NASA, called Planck “cosmology’s human-genome project,” saying, “It shows the seeds from which the current universe grew.”
“What a wonderful triumph of the mathematical approach to describing nature. The precision is breathtaking,” Brian Greene, a Columbia University physicist, said in an email. “The satellite is measuring temperature variations in space — which arose from processes that took place almost 14 billion years ago — to 1 part in a million. Amazing.”
The Big Bang Theory says the universe was smaller than an atom in the beginning when, in a split second, it exploded, cooled and expanded faster than the speed of light, an idea scientists call inflation.
Within the standard cosmological framework, however, the new satellite data underscored the existence of puzzling anomalies that may lead theorists back to the drawing board.
The universe appears to be slightly lumpier, with bigger and more hot and cold spots in the northern half of the sky as seen from Earth than toward the south, for example, and there is an unexplained cool spot in the northern half.
Those anomalies had shown up on previous maps by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, satellite, but some had argued they were because of a bad analysis or contamination from the Milky Way.
Now cosmologists will have to take them more seriously, said Max Tegmark, an expert on the early universe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not part of the Planck team and who termed the new results “very exciting.”
It could be, he said, that “the universe is trying to tell us something.”
George Efstathiou of Cambridge University, one of the leaders of the Planck project, said in the European Space Agency news release: “Our ultimate goal would be to construct a new model that predicts the anomalies and links them together. But these are early days; so far, we don’t know whether this is possible and what type of new physics might be needed. And that’s exciting.”
The new data caused astronomers to tweak their model. Researchers raised the estimates of normal matter in the universe to 4.9 percent, up from 4.6 percent. The dark-matter share rose to 26.8 percent, from 24 percent. The overwhelming majority, dark energy, shrank from 71.4 percent to 68.3 percent.
The biggest surprise, astronomers said, is that the universe is expanding slightly more slowly than previous measurements had indicated. The Hubble constant, which measures how fast the universe is expanding, was adjusted to be about 3 percent slower than scientists had thought.
The map represents the first 15.5 months of observation by the $900 million Planck telescope, which looked at the universe’s cosmic microwave background — that extremely cold, barely noticeable glow left after the Big Bang when the universe was just a cosmic baby, about 380,000 years old.
The Planck data also offered striking support for the notion of inflation, the backbone of Big Bang theorizing.
Under the influence of a mysterious force field during the first fraction of a second, what would become the observable universe ballooned by 100 trillion trillion times in size from a subatomic pinprick to a grapefruit in less than an eye-blink, according to the story first enunciated by Alan Guth of MIT.
Submicroscopic quantum fluctuations in this force field are what would produce the hot spots in the cosmic microwaves, which in turn would grow into galaxies. According to Planck’s measurements, those fluctuations so far fit the predictions of the simplest model of inflation, invented by Andrei Linde of Stanford, to a tee.
Cosmologists still don’t know what might have caused inflation, but the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, the “God particle,” has provided evidence that the kinds of fields that can provoke such behavior do exist.
Tegmark and others said another clue to the nature of inflation could come from the anomalies in the microwave data. They were the first patterns to be laid down on the emerging cosmos, when inflation was starting.
He compared it to encountering a fight. If the fight has been going on for a while, he said, it is impossible to tell who started it. But if you come in a few seconds after it started, you have a better chance of figuring out who did what to whom.
“It may be,” he said, “we’re coming in early to the cosmic brawl.”
The Planck space telescope, launched in 2009, is named for the German physicist Max Planck, the originator of quantum physics. It is expected to keep transmitting data until late this year, when it runs out of cooling fluid.
Material from The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times is included in this report.