An extraordinary map of the primeval universe created with the Planck space telescope

Map of the cosmic microwave background radiation created with the Planck space telescope (Image ESA and the Planck Collaboration)
Map of the cosmic microwave background radiation created with the Planck space telescope (Image ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

The ESA presented the best map so far of the cosmic background radiation created thanks to the measurements of the Planck Surveyor spacecraft. This map shows the universe as it was before the galaxies were formed when it was about 380,000 years old. The results show some features that aren’t currently explained and may require further progress in the field of physics.

The cosmic microwave background radiation, (CMB or CMBR) is the remnant of the earliest stages of the universe and is considered one of the evidence of the Big Bang. It was predicted in 1948 by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, but only in 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson detected it with a radiometer and for their discovery they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978.

In the following decades several researches were made on the cosmic microwave background radiation with more and more precise instruments. In 1989, NASA launched the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite, which was designed to measure the spectrum of this radiation and to verify the existence of anisotropy, which in very simple terms is a non uniformity in this radiation. In 2006, two of the leading researchers of the COBE project, John C. Mather and George F. Smoot, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for this research.

In 2001, NASA launched the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, with the aim of measuring the remains of the cosmic microwave background radiation, essentially a successor to COBE with more accurate instruments. Its mission was completed in 2010.

In May 2009, ESA launched a satellite, the Planck Surveyor, a special space telescope built with the cooperation of NASA after the merger of the project COBRAS, which become the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI), and SAMBA, become the High Frequency Instrument (HFI). Those instruments were cooled to very low temperatures with a sophisticated system to limit the amount of electromagnetic radiation emitted by them avoiding interference with their operation: LFI has been brought to a temperature of approximately 20 Kelvin, HFI to 0.1 Kelvin.

The results of the measurements of the Planck space probe are partly surprising. Fluctuations in the temperature of the cosmic background radiation don’t match expectations. The asymmetry in the average temperatures in the opposite hemispheres of the sky is unexpected too. A cold area in the Eridani constellation called the CMB cold spot is larger than scientists imagined.

Findings from the WMAP space probe had actually provided some clues of these detections but Planck greater accuracy eliminates the doubts that had been raised. The consequence is that the cosmological models must be reviewed in order to understand the underlying causes of the unexpected findings.

Other results of the first analysis of data from the Planck satellite seem almost trivial. They suggest that the universe is nearly a hundred million years older than previously estimated, taking his age to 13.82 billion years. It also seems to be made for 4.9% of normal matter, for 26.8% of dark matter and for 68.3% of dark energy.

As always in these cases, there’s a huge amount of data that will keep on being analyzed, also with the use of a Cray XE6 supercomputer called Hopper after computer scientist Grace Hopper. For this reason, the full results of the measurements of the Planck satellite are expected to be released only in 2014.

The Planck mission is already a huge success because it will lead to more precise cosmological models. Several articles have already been published by scientists working in this mission immediately after the presentation of the new map of the cosmic background radiation. This is just the beginning because the Planck space telescope has allowed us to make a big step forward in the field of astrophysics and in particular in our knowledge of the universe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *