Mapping the infant universe

Mapping the infant universe
Mapping the infant universe is no easy task. New data from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite is giving astronomers their most complete look yet at the very earliest moments of the universe. Planck, which measures microwave radiation, has created a heat map of the temperatures present in the universe a mere 370,000 years after the Big Bang.

The data suggests that the universe is as much as 100 million years older—and contains slightly more matter—than previously thought. “By matching observations from Planck to predictions from models, we can assemble a surprisingly detailed picture of the universe as it was one nano-nano-nano-nanosecond after the Big Bang,” Johns Hopkins University astronomer Marc Kamionkowski tells

In that first instant, scientists believe, a process called inflation caused the cosmos to expand 100 trillion trillion times, from subatomic size to the dimensions of a grapefruit. Since that first burst, the universe has continued to expand at a slower rate, known as the Hubble constant.

The new data from Planck revises the estimate of that rate significantly downward, and suggests that dark energy may be tugging at the cosmos in ways science can’t yet explain. A “new physics might be needed” to understand that and other irregularities the map has revealed, says Planck scientist George Efstathiou. “And that’s exciting.”