Astronomers have released the most detailed heat map of the universe so far, drawing on data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck satellite.
The stunning image has been hailed by scientists across the world as a precious new source of data for scientists seeking to refine our knowledge of the cosmos.
ESA Director Jean-Jacques Dordain described the new map, which was released on March 21, as “a giant leap in understanding the origins of the universe.”
The map, a constellation of red and blue speckles, captures the imprint of the first light that shone through the cosmos, just 380,000 years after the big bang that marks the beginning of the universe.
It shows tiny fluctuations in the so-called cosmic microwave background, the residual glow of radiation from this earliest light.
The variations correspond to the regions of different densities in matter and represent what scientists call the “seeds” from which stars and galaxies grew.
Markus Bauer, an ESA spokesman, told RFE/RL that “We are looking back almost 13.8 billion years. There was an initial phase of what we call inflation, when the universe was expanding at a tremendous rate, even faster than light."
"At a certain moment this soup of plasma, as we call it, became transparent and it was the first time that light could travel freely though the universe. So we are really looking into the infancy of our universe,” Bauer said.
This “baby picture” of our universe is in striking agreement with our current understanding of the universe.
Uneven Heat Spots
The data harvested so far by the Planck satellite over 15 months of observation has nonetheless enabled scientists to make small tweaks to the standard model of cosmology that astronomers have established during the past two decades.
The universe, for instance, appears to be expanding at a slower rate than previously thought. This means that it is about 80 million years older than earlier data had suggested, and would make the universe 13.8 billion years old.
The new map also provides a more accurate estimate of the universe’s makeup.
“We already knew from previous satellites that the universe contains only very little normal matter, the matter we, as well as planets and stars, are made out of. Then there is a big portion that we don’t understand at all, which is dark energy. The other portion is dark matter. Planck has been refining these values,” Bauer said.
Dark matter is an invisible substance that appears to pull galaxies together, while dark energy is thought to drive the expansion of the universe by pushing it apart.
According to the latest findings, normal matter now accounts for 4.9 percent of the universe, a little more than thought. There is a little more dark matter, at 26.8 percent, and less dark energy, at 68.3 percent.
But the new satellite data also reveals anomalies that have puzzled astronomers.
Heat appears to be distributed less evenly in our universe, with one side of the sky clearly featuring more heat spots than the other. The map also features a large, unexplained “cold spot” in its center.
These anomalies had shown up on previous maps but had been put down to bad analysis or faulty data recording.