The Day the Universe Changed: Planck Mission Tells Us the Universe is Millions of Years Older Than We Thought

A Map of the Universeimage courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Lab

A Map of the Universe
image courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Lab

The pursuit of scientific knowledge requires us to challenge some of the most basic assumptions we have about the world. Nothing stays the same for long, and the more we explore nature and space the better we understand our place in them. This week, our understanding of the entire universe changed, and with it the questions we will ask in the future about the origins of life.

On March 21, 2013, the Planck space observatory released a new map of the universe.  Planck is a European Space Agency mission, and measures the cosmic microwave background. The map above shows a snapshot of the universe’s light 370 million years ago. A press release from NASA explains it better than we ever could:

“Planck launched in 2009 and has been scanning the skies ever since, mapping the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the theorized big bang that created our universe. This relic radiation provides scientists with a snapshot of the universe 370,000 years after the big bang. Light existed before this time, but it was locked in a hot plasma similar to a candle flame, which later cooled and set the light free. The

cosmic microwave background is remarkably uniform over the entire sky, but tiny variations reveal the imprints of sound waves triggered by quantum fluctuations in the universe just moments after it was born. These imprints, appearing as splotches in the Planck map, are the seeds from which matter grew, forming stars and galaxies.”

The Planck pictures indicate that the universe is expanding more slowly than scientists thought, and is 13.8 billion years old, a whopping 100 million years older than previous estimates. What does this mean? The new data tests ”theories describing inflation, a dramatic expansion of the universe that occurred immediately after its birth. In far less time than it takes to blink an eye, the universe blew up by 100 trillion times in size. The new map, by showing that matter seems to be distributed randomly, suggests that random processes were at play in the very early universe on minute “quantum” scales. This allows scientists to rule out many complex inflation theories in favor of simple ones.” Now scientists can focus on the areas of the map that don’t fit their current models and develop newer, more precise estimates of exactly how the present universe formed.

Planck’s mission will be complete in 2014. Surely there are more revelations to come.


Just a note about the research for this post. Most of the news sites provided images and overviews but did not link directly to the European Space Agency or the NASA explanation of the discovery. By finding the source of the images we found the best explanations of the discovery, the history and science behind it, and what it means. It was worth the extra searches and clicks it took to find the most direct sources of the research, and we recommend further exploration of the NASA and Planck sites, where there are more fascinating images from Planck.

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