Planck spacecraft offers clues to age, origin of universe

NASA-aided mission creates a more accurate, detailed map of oldest light in universe

The Planck space mission has given scientists new information about the age, content and origin of the universe.

Planck, which lifted off in May 2009 on a mission to decipher the mysteries behind the creation of the universe, has created what NASA calls the most accurate and detailed map of the oldest light in the universe.

The map, according to the space agency, suggests the universe is expanding more slowly than scientists thought, and is 13.8 billion years old -- 100 million years older than previous estimates. The mission also has delivered information showing that there is less dark energy in the universe and more matter, both normal and dark matter.

Dark matter, an invisible substance, and dark energy, which is believed to be the force pushing the universe apart, both remain wrapped in mystery. Scientists have been hoping that the Planck mission, along with work at the Large Hadron collider, will shed light on what has only been theorized so far.

"Astronomers worldwide have been on the edge of their seats waiting for this map," said Joan Centrella, NASA's Planck program scientist. "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."

Planck is a European Space Agency mission, though NASA has contributed technology to it and U.S., European and Canadian scientists are working together to analyze the data Planck is sending back.

Planck, a cosmic background mapper, was launched along with an infrared space telescope named Herschel. Both are focusing on the darkest, coldest and oldest parts of the universe to study dark matter and to learn more about the birth of stars and galaxies. Herschel and Planck are designed to help scientists unravel the mysteries of the Big Bang theory by peering back into the earliest moments of the universe.

The map that Planck created shows tiny temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, ancient light that has traveled for billions of years from the very early universe to reach us, NASA reported. These light patterns are the beginnings of galaxies and galaxy clusters that can be observed today.

"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 U.S. project scientist for the Planck mission. "The Planck map reveals not only the very young universe, but also matter, including dark matter, everywhere in the universe."

Planck universe map
This map shows the oldest light in the universe. Called the cosmic microwave background, it was imprinted on the sky when the universe was 370,000 years old. (Image: ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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