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New map of the oldest light in the sky supports Big Bang model

Anne Hobson
Contributor

The European Space Agency has released a map of the oldest light ever detected in the cosmos, confirming the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe but raising new questions in the process, the BBC reports.

The map is the result of 15 months of data acquired by the Planck space telescope at ESA headquarters in Paris. The telescope detects the cosmic microwave background (CMB), light from across the cosmos that now washes over the earth at microwave frequencies.

The CMB is light that began to expand out across space about 380,000 years into the life of the cosmos, when matter and light decoupled and the cooling of the universe resulted in the formation of hydrogen atoms. The CMB has a temperature profile 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.

The configuration the CMB suggests that the universe came into existence 13.82 billion years ago, which is 50 million years earlier than previous calculations.

The data also suggested that the contents of the universe include more matter at 31.7 percent, and less “dark energy” at 68.3 percent. “Dark energy” is thought to be driving the cosmos apart at an increasing rate.

Fluctuations of temperature in the map reflect the differences in the density of matter, hinting at the structure of stars and galaxies that later developed in the cosmos. Scientists applied statistical analyses to the recorded temperature deviations to match them against theoretical expectations about the evolution of the universe.

According to the team of scientists that analyzed Planck’s data, the findings confirmed the idea that the universe started in a hot, dense state, and then cooled and expanded.  The findings also support the theory known as inflation, which says that the universe expanded exponentially at a speed faster than light in the first moments of its existence.

The map configured from Planck’s data is more detailed than previous maps made by NASA’s WMAP satellite.  Some of the features from earlier maps are more prominent in Planck’s data.  For example, the southern hemisphere is slightly warmer than the northern hemisphere, reflecting an asymmetry in the average temperatures. Moreover, temperature fluctuations do not match those predicted by the standard model of cosmology. Also, the map reveals a large cold spot centered on the constellation Eridanus.

Such anomalies suggest that scientists will have to find a new explanation for how inflation began. “Inflation doesn’t predict that it should leave behind any kind of history or remnant, and yet that’s what we see,” Planck project scientist Dr Han Tauber told BBC News.

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