Mystery of the universe’s expansion rate widens with new Hubble data

This is a ground-based telescope’s view of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. The inset image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals one of many star clusters scattered throughout the dwarf galaxy. PIX/ NASA, ESA, A. Riess (STScI/JHU) and Palomar Digitized Sky Survey

ASTRONOMERS using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope say they have crossed an important threshold in revealing a discrepancy between the two key techniques for measuring the universe’s expansion rate. The recent study strengthens the case that new theories may be needed to explain the forces that have shaped the cosmos.

A brief recap: The universe is get- ting bigger every second. The space between galaxies is stretching, like dough rising in the oven. But how fast is the universe expanding? As Hubble and other telescopes seek to answer this question, they have run into an intriguing difference between what scientists predict and what they observe.

Hubble measurements suggest a faster expansion rate in the modern universe than expected, based on how the universe appeared more than 13 billion years ago. These measurements of the early universe come from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite. This discrepancy has been identified in scientific papers over the last several years, but it has been unclear whether differences in measurement techniques are to blame, or whether the difference could result from unlucky measurements.

The latest Hubble data lower the possibility that the discrepancy is only a fluke to 1 in 100,000. This is a significant gain from an earlier estimate, less than a year ago, of a chance of 1 in 3,000.

These most precise Hubble measurements to date bolster the idea that new physics may be needed to explain the mismatch.

“The Hubble tension between the early and late universe may be the most exciting development in cosmology in decades,” said lead researcher and Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland. “This mismatch has been growing and has now reached a point that is really impossible to dis- miss as a fluke. This disparity could not plausibly occur just by chance.”

Tightening the bolts on the ‘cosmic distance ladder’

Scientists use a “cosmic distance ladder” to determine how far away things are in the universe. This method depends on making accurate measurements of distances to nearby galaxies and then moving to galaxies farther and farther away, using their stars as milepost markers.

Astronomers use these values, along with other measurements of the galaxies’ light that reddens as it passes through a stretching universe, to calculate how fast the cosmos expands with time, a value known as the Hubble constant. Riess and his SH0ES (Supernovae H0 for the Equation of State) team have been on a quest since 2005 to refine those distance measurements with Hubble and fine-tune the Hubble constant.

In this new study, astronomers used Hubble to observe 70 pulsating stars called Cepheid variables in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The observations helped the astronomers “rebuild” the distance ladder by improving the comparison between those Cepheids and their more distant cousins in the galactic hosts of supernovas. Riess’s team reduced the uncertainty in their Hubble constant value to 1.9% from an earlier estimate of 2.2%.

As the team’s measurements have become more precise, their calculation of the Hubble constant has remained at odds with the expected value derived from observations of the early universe’s expansion.

Those measurements were made by Planck, which maps the cosmic microwave background, a relic afterglow from 380,000 years after the big bang.

The measurements have been thoroughly vetted, so astronomers cannot currently dismiss the gap between the two results as due to an error in any single measurement or method. Both values have been tested multiple ways.

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