ESA's Planck Space Mission Creates Highly-Detailed Map Of The Universe
March 21, 2013

ESA’s Planck Space Mission Creates Most Detailed Map Of The Universe

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Using technologies contributed by NASA, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Planck space mission has provided the most accurate and detailed map made of the oldest light in the Universe.

Results from Planck are giving a more detailed look into our Universe's history than ever before. The map suggests that the Universe is expanding more slowly and is 100 million years older than scientists previously thought. The data also shows there is less dark energy and more matter in the Universe than scientists had estimated.

"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."

The map shows tiny temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, which is ancient light that has traveled for billions of years to reach us.

"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, the US project scientist for Planck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "The Planck map reveals not only the very young universe, but also matter, including dark matter, everywhere in the Universe."

The new data has allowed researchers to test and improve the accuracy of a model developed by scientists known as the standard model of cosmology. However, some features brought out by Planck do not quite fit in 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, the European Space Agency's Planck project scientist based in the Netherlands.

The findings also test theories about the dramatic expansion of the Universe that occurred after its birth. The new map shows that matter is distributed randomly, suggesting that processes were at play in the early Universe.

"Patterns over huge patches of sky tell us about what was happening on the tiniest of scales in the moments just after our Universe was born," Lawrence said.

Planck, which launched in 2009, is providing scientists with a snapshot of the Universe 370,000 years after the Big Bang. The spacecraft is the successor to other space missions, including NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) -- (image comparison). Planck covers a wider range of light frequencies than these satellites, and also has improved sensitivity and resolution.

"Planck is like the Ferrari of cosmic microwave background missions," said Krzysztof Gorski, a U.S Planck scientist at JPL. "You fine tune the technology to get more precise results. For a car, that can mean an increase in speed and winning races. For Planck, it results in giving astronomers a treasure trove of spectacular data, and bringing forth a deeper understanding of the properties and history of the Universe."

The spacecraft could also make it possible to reveal some new unexplained features that may require new physics to be understood.

“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. Such discoveries were made possible by the unique technologies developed for that purpose by European industry," says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA´s Director General.

Tauber says Planck is painting a new picture of the Universe that is pushing us to the limits of understanding current cosmological theories.

“We see an almost perfect fit to the standard model of cosmology, but with intriguing features that force us to rethink some of our basic assumptions," Tauber said. "This is the beginning of a new journey and we expect that our continued analysis of Planck data will help shed light on this conundrum."

Planck ran out of coolant in January after completing its survey of the remnant light from the Big Bang. Scientists will continue to sift through Planck data to get a better understanding of the Big Bang and the very early Universe.