April 4, 2013, noonView more articles
Launched into orbit in May 2009 by the European Space Agency, the Planck space telescope has allowed scientists to test various cosmological theories, helping to build a better understanding of the Universe’s origins. The satellite’s instruments detect cosmic microwave background radiation – thermal energy dispersed throughout the Universe that is believed to be the afterglow from the Big Bang. The satellite was able to detect this radiation with incredible precision, amassing a vast amount of data that has taken researchers many months to process. In March 2013, the results were released to the public in the form of a full-sky map that shows, in greater detail than ever before, the distribution of cosmic microwave background radiation throughout the Universe. This map, and the data it represents, has helped confirm some existing hypotheses about the Universe, while challenging others…
Overall, its findings are consistent with the Big Bang theory: that the Universe started out infinitesimally small and incredibly dense, and then suddenly expanded outwards. However, the map has also revealed anomalies that challenge some fundamental assumptions about the Big Bang model, and caused existing estimates of the Universe’s age and composition to be revised.
For example, the Planck data suggests that the Universe is expanding much more slowly than previously thought. This implies that the Universe is approximately 13.82 billion years old – about 50 million years older than earlier calculations. Similarly, prior to the Planck mission, the Universe was estimated to be 22.7% dark matter (the as-yet-undetected particles believed to make up around 85% of the Universe’s mass) and 72.8% dark energy (the mysterious energy field understood to pervade the entire Universe, causing its acceleration). These figures have now both been amended, with the amount of dark matter now estimated at 26.8%, and the amount of dark energy at 68.3%. The analysis of the data is far from concluded, but already Planck has helped to clarify our understanding of how the Universe began. While there is still much about the cosmos that remains unknown, the Planck map has taken us another step closer to unlocking its many mysteries.