Release 32 of 69

Hubble Finds Evidence for Dark Energy in the Young Universe

Release date: Nov 16, 2006 1:00 PM (EST)

Scientists using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have discovered that dark energy is not a new constituent of space, but rather has been present for most of the universe's history. Dark energy is a mysterious repulsive force that causes the universe to expand at an increasing rate. Investigators used Hubble to find that dark energy was already boosting the expansion rate of the universe as long as nine billion years ago. This picture of dark energy is consistent with Albert Einstein's prediction of nearly a century ago that a repulsive form of gravity emanates from empty space. Data from Hubble provides supporting evidence to help astrophysicists to understand the nature of dark energy. This will allow them to begin ruling out some competing explanations that predict that the strength of dark energy changes over time.

Researchers also have found that the class of ancient exploding stars, or supernovae, used to measure the expansion of space today look remarkably similar to those that exploded nine billion years ago and are just now being seen by Hubble. This important finding gives additional credibility to the use of these supernovae for tracking the cosmic expansion over most of the universe's lifetime. Supernovae provide reliable measurements because their intrinsic brightness is well understood. They are therefore reliable distance markers, allowing astronomers to determine how far away they are from Earth. These snapshots, taken by Hubble reveal five supernovae and their host galaxies. The arrows in the top row of images point to the supernovae. The bottom row shows the host galaxies before or after the stars exploded. The supernovae exploded between 3.5 and 10 billion years ago.

The Full Story
Release date: Nov 16, 2006
Hubble Finds Evidence for Dark Energy in the Young Universe

Scientists using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have discovered that dark energy is not a new constituent of space, but rather has been present for most of the universe's history. Dark energy is a mysterious repulsive force that causes the universe to expand at an increasing rate.

Investigators used Hubble to find that dark energy was already boosting the expansion rate of the universe as long as nine billion years ago. This picture of dark energy is consistent with Albert Einstein's prediction of nearly a century ago that a repulsive form of gravity emanates from empty space.

Data from Hubble provides supporting evidence that help astrophysicists to understand the nature of dark energy. This will allow scientists to begin ruling out some competing explanations that predict that the strength of dark energy changes over time.

Researchers also have found that the class of ancient exploding stars, or supernovae, used to measure the expansion of space today look remarkably similar to those that exploded nine billion years ago and are just now being seen by Hubble. This important finding gives additional credibility to the use of these supernovae for tracking the cosmic expansion over most of the universe's lifetime.

"Although dark energy accounts for more than 70 percent of the energy of the universe, we know very little about it, so each clue is precious," said Adam Riess, of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Riess led one of the first studies to reveal the presence of dark energy in 1998 and is the leader of the current Hubble study. "Our latest clue is that the stuff we call dark energy was relatively weak, but starting to make its presence felt nine billion years ago."

To study the behavior of dark energy of long ago, Hubble had to peer far across the universe and back into time to detect supernovae. Supernovae can be used to trace the universe's expansion. This is analogous to seeing fireflies on a summer night. Fireflies glow with about the same brightness, so you can judge how they are distributed in the backyard by their comparative faintness or brightness, depending on their distance from you. Only Hubble can measure these ancient supernovae because they are too distant, and therefore too faint, to be studied by the largest ground-based telescopes.

Einstein first conceived of the notion of a repulsive force in space in his attempt to balance the universe against the inward pull of its own gravity, which he thought would ultimately cause the universe to implode.

His "cosmological constant" remained a curious hypothesis until 1998, when Riess and the members of the High-z Supernova Team and the Supernova Cosmology Project used ground-based telescopes and Hubble to detect the acceleration of the expansion of space from observations of distant supernovae. Astrophysicists came to the realization that Einstein may have been right after all: there really was a repulsive form of gravity in space that was soon after dubbed "dark energy."

Over the past eight years astrophysicists have been trying to uncover two of dark energy's most fundamental properties: its strength and its permanence. These new observations reveal that dark energy was present and obstructing the gravitational pull of the matter in the universe even before it began to win this cosmic "tug of war."

Previous Hubble observations of the most distant supernovae known revealed that the early universe was dominated by matter whose gravity was slowing down the universe's expansion rate, like a ball rolling up a slight incline. The observations also confirmed that the expansion rate of the cosmos began speeding up about five to six billion years ago. That is when astronomers believe that dark energy's repulsive force overtook gravity's attractive grip.

The latest results are based on an analysis of the 24 most distant supernovae known, most found within the last two years.

By measuring the universe's relative size over time, astrophysicists have tracked the universe's growth spurts, much as a parent may witness the growth spurts of a child by tracking changes in height on a doorframe. Distant supernovae provide the doorframe markings read by Hubble. "After we subtract the gravity from the known matter in the universe, we can see the dark energy pushing to get out," said Lou Strolger, astronomer and Hubble science team member at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. Further observations are presently underway with Hubble by Riess and his team which should continue to offer new clues to the nature of dark energy.



BACKGROUND INFORMATION: WHAT ARE HST'S NEW RESULTS ON DARK ENERGY TELLING US?

  1. Astronomers have greatly improved the accuracy in the measurements of the acceleration in the cosmic expansion. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the expansion of our universe is speeding up, propelled by the repulsive force of "dark energy." The nature of this dark energy remains a mystery.
  2. Astronomers have strengthened the evidence that the early universe was decelerating, but that it gave way to acceleration by around 4 to 5 billion years ago.
  3. Astronomers have obtained the first meaningful measurement of the strength of dark energy in the distant past. It appears to have roughly the same strength that it does today, with a value consistent with Einstein's cosmological constant but does not prove Einstein was right. Astronomers are trying in particular to determine how much pressure this dark energy exerts for a given energy density, and if the relation between pressure and density remains constant or changes with time.
  4. The "pressure" exerted by dark energy far back in time was negative, as it remains today, resulting in a repulsive gravitational force.
  5. The new results rule out any rapid changes of in the "strength" of the dark energy's pressure, and in so doing, they rule out certain models for the dark energy. By observing a larger sample of supernovae, the researches have been able to place tighter constraints both on this "strength" of the dark energy and on its constancy. One possibility is that the dark energy represents the energy of empty space (the physical vacuum). The physical vacuum has a peculiar property that its pressure is negative, resulting in a repulsive force of gravity. Other models for the nature of dark energy involve fields (a bit like the electromagnetic field) that decay with time.
  6. There is strong evidence that the Supernovae Type Ia, the "standard candles" used to measure the rate of cosmic expansion, have not changed over the past 10 billions years, i.e., supernova evolution is not fooling astronomers into drawing false conclusions about dark energy. The new results yield the tightest constraints to date on both the "strength" of the dark energy pressure and on its constancy. The results are consistent with Einstein's cosmological constant. This means that at least some models that involve varying fields can be ruled out.