Planck satellite: Maps detail Universe's ancient light

A map tracing the "oldest light" in the sky has been produced by Europe's Planck Surveyor satellite. Its pattern confirms the Big Bang theory for the origin of the Universe but subtle, unexpected details will require scientists to adjust some of their ideas.

Map of the oldest light in the Universe.

The map shows tiny deviations from the average background temperature, where blue is slightly cooler and red is slightly warmer. The cold spots are where matter was more concentrated and later collapsed under gravity to form stars and galaxies. Image: ESA/Planck Collaboration


Related Stories

A spectacular new map of the "oldest light" in the sky has just been released by the European Space Agency.

Scientists say its mottled pattern is an exquisite confirmation of our Big-Bang model for the origin and evolution of the Universe.

But there are features in the picture, they add, that are unexpected and will require ideas to be refined.

The map was assembled from 15 months' worth of data acquired by the 600m-euro (£515m) Planck space telescope.

It details what is known as the cosmic microwave background, or CMB - a faint glow of long wavelength radiation that pervades all of space.

Its precise configuration, visible in the new Planck data, is suggestive of a cosmos that is slightly older than previously thought - one that came into existence 13.82 billion years ago.

This is an increase of about 50 million years on earlier calculations.

The map's pattern also indicates a subtle adjustment is needed to the Universe's inventory of contents.

It seems there is slightly more matter out there (31.7%) and slightly less "dark energy" (68.3%), the mysterious component thought to be driving the cosmos apart at an accelerating rate.

"I would imagine for [most people] it might look like a dirty rugby ball or a piece of modern art," said Cambridge University's George Efstathiou, presenting the new picture here at Esa headquarters in Paris.

"But I can assure you there are cosmologists who would have hacked our computers or maybe even given up their children to get hold of this map, we're so excited by it."

Planck is the third western satellite to study the CMB. The two previous efforts - COBE and WMAP - were led by the US space agency (Nasa). The Soviets also had an experiment in space in the 1980s that they called Relikt-1.

How Planck's view hints at new physics

Planck anomalies graphic
  • The CMB's temperature fluctuations are put through a number of statistical analyses
  • Deviations can be studied as a function of their size on the sky - their angular scale
  • When compared to best-fit Big Bang models, some anomalies are evident
  • One shows the fluctuations on the biggest scales to be weaker than expected
  • Theorists will need to adjust their ideas to account for these features

The CMB is the light that was finally allowed to spread out across space once the Universe had cooled sufficiently to permit the formation of hydrogen atoms - about 380,000 years into the life of the cosmos.

It still bathes the Earth in a near-uniform glow at microwave frequencies, and has a temperature profile that is just 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.

But it is possible to detect minute deviations in this signal, and these fluctuations - seen as mottling in the map - are understood to reflect the differences in the density of matter when the light parted company and set out on its journey all those years ago.

The fluctuations can be thought of as the seeds for all the structure that later developed in the cosmos - all the stars and galaxies.

Scientists subject the temperature deviations to a range of statistical analyses, which can then be matched against theoretical expectations.

This allows them to rule in some models to explain the origin and evolution of the cosmos, while ruling out a host of others.

The team that has done this for Planck's data says the map is an elegant fit for the standard model of cosmology - the idea that the Universe started in a hot, dense state in an incredibly small space, and then expanded and cooled.

At a fundamental level, it also supports an "add-on" to this Big Bang theory known as inflation, which postulates that in the very first moments of its existence the Universe opened up in an exponential manner - faster than light itself.

But because Planck's map is so much more detailed than anything previously obtained, it is also possible to see some anomalies in it.

Temperature anomalies in Planck data Planck has confirmed the north/south differences and a "cold spot" in the data

One is the finding that the temperature fluctuations, when viewed across the biggest scales, do not match those predicted by the standard model. Their signal is a bit weaker than expected.

Planck's new numbers

  • 4.9% normal matter - atoms, the stuff from which we are all made
  • 26.8% dark matter - the unseen material holding galaxies together
  • 68.3% dark energy - the mysterious component accelerating cosmic expansion
  • The number for dark energy is lower than previously estimated
  • The new age - 13.82 billion years - results from a slower expansion
  • This is described by a value known as the Hubble Constant
  • It too is revised to 67.15 km per second, per megaparsec (3.2 million light-years)

There appears also to be an asymmetry in the average temperatures across the sky; the southern hemisphere is slightly warmer than the north.

A third anomaly is a cold spot in the map, centred on the constellation Eridanus, which is much bigger than would be predicted.

These features have been hinted at before by Planck's most recent predecessor - Nasa's WMAP satellite - but are now seen with greater clarity and their significance cemented.

A consequence will be the binning of many ideas for how inflation propagated, as the process was first introduced in the 1980s as a way to iron out such phenomena.

The fact that these delicate features are real will force theorists to finesse their inflationary solutions and possibly even lead them to some novel physics on the way.

"Inflation doesn't predict that it should leave behind any kind of history or remnant, and yet that's what we see," Planck project scientist Dr Jan Tauber told BBC News.

CMB - The 'oldest light' in the Universe

Detail of CMB data
  • Theory says 380,000 years after the Big Bang, matter and light "decoupled"
  • Matter went on to form stars and galaxies; the light spread out and cooled
  • The light - the CMB - now washes over the Earth at microwave frequencies
  • Tiny deviations from this average glow appear as mottling in the map (above)
  • These fluctuations reflect density differences in the early distribution of matter
  • Their pattern betrays the age, shape and contents of the Universe, and more and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    It's amazing how threatened they feel when something appears to mean there is no supreme being. What a ridiculous theory it is, invented by man to control the masses. If just one person had any proof of a god of any kind, it would be interesting?

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    Christians, your own leader Mr. Pope, said recently that "God must be asleep". Your all powerful, omnipotent God needs a little sleep from time to time!! Religion holds no place in modern society, and I am frankly tired of the role it has to play today. It's like you've seen an iPhone, but are adamant that Morse Code is still best!
    What separates us from 'roaches and elephants is blind stupidity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    Lots of misconceptions here. Some people just want to stir up the crazy.

    My faith is stronger than any man-made or natural material. I have studied physics at University and never felt 'conflicted' I was always assured the big bang was the point of origin of the universe. People need to understand scientist do not treat theories as fact. but theory is strengthened when there is a consensus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.


    "...The fact is we don't know what speeds things in the universe were traveling at before we started to observe and record them. Why don't people get this?..."


    The speed of light is represented by "c". That stands for "constant". If you're saying it isn't, and hasn't been, can you link to some peer-reviewed science on the point? Thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    Possibly the pre ionisation epoch there existed energy outside our current detectable wavelength spectrum. Possbily matter shifts through states based on its energy level, hence particles and sub particles. The current observable universe only came into being because it is all we can observe, but previous states of matter existed (simple explaination)

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    "this was written more than 1400 years ago in the QURAN"

    Of course it was. I believe the Quran also contains a full analysis of the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Physics and how to cut off people's hands for theft or stone them for adultery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    At the speed of light matter doesn't exist, so it's not that matter and light 'decoupled'. More like it started to slow down, and so developed mass. Thus, matter was born. Since before this happened there was nothing but light, that kinda suggests one of two things - 1. Light on light causes friction (hence the slowing effect), or 2. The Big Bang didn't start everything. Something already existed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    So can we finally stop wasting money on religious nonsense now and start spending money of the debt crisis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    #351 "thats never been asked", actually it has, very very often. However like many of the god issues here it boils down to the fact that this is only a theory, currently the best, testable hypothesis.
    What was "before" is in scientific terms, speculation as it is not testable. Similarly what is "outside" is unknown for the same reasons.
    Science uses evidence the rest is fantasy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.


    "The whole universe was in a hot, dense state.."

    Is the Universe in the Eurozone then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    I am very grateful to the men and women involved in this project for furthering our collective knowledge of the Universe in which we exist. Whilst I defend the rights of others to have faith in mythology, fairy tales and a #magicmaninthesky - those very same people should not denigrate the hard work of people allowing us to continue to evolve as a species. Thank you fellow primates!

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    352. AKOOB

    Correlation does not mean causation, basic science (God may have missed that one out in the quran).

    If you genuinely want to live your life, matching current scientific discoveries to ambiguous ancient texts, be my guest, but do not be surprised if people think you mad for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    RE:Mustard seed.He was using something familiar 2 those he was teaching. 2 them mustard seed was smallest. No point me using an illustration on fly fishing 2 footy fans. I stress 2 students, evolution is not fact hence the term 'Theory'.Big bang shows how universe started. Is it illogical to think some1 was controlling the bang? our universe is so precise, could an uncontrolled bang create this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    I read "A third significant anomaly is a cold spot in the map".
    Seems God had more than one Big Bang.Look like the anomaly at cold spot Eridanus shows the print of a precedent collapses.In other way why would this should be the first B B of all time?If it was why would be there anomaly!How many B B did we had before? did someone or something ever escape a big bang?Tofmelon a step before BB.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    All this "Big Bang", "General Relativity" and "Quantum Mechanics" is all just made up theories, please can we just have solid stone age facts
    And before you mention GPS it really uses fairy dust

    Sent from my I abacus

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    @329. Someonewhocares
    Science didn't stop the meteor, but it did allow scientists to work out where it came from, it's trajectory, approximate size and where it landed. And that information will be put to good use in the future in trying to work out what to do when another one strikes.

    This is a great image btw

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    "Ok mouthy god haters, prove god does not exist?"

    One cannot prove that something that does not exist isn't there. One can only say that we have never experienced ANY evidence for it.

    In return, I ask you disprove that there is a giant invisible pink unicorn sitting in your kitchen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    what has this got to do with God? you're looking at a pretty amazing image. enjoy it for what it is, not what it's not. this isn't to prove or disprove the existence of a God.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.


    Hopefully before it bore fruit and the encased seeds created more roots/religions etc etc

    I wonder how many more comment boards exist just as this one in all the millions of other populated planets throughout the universe. I wonder if they have the FSM too?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    excellent science and article, just a shame that when there is a science article about the origin of the universe all the religious believers suddenly feel threatened and go on the attack against science. The word 'blinkered' comes to mind


Page 4 of 23


More Science & Environment stories



  • Two women in  JohanesburgYour pictures

    Readers' photos on the theme of South Africa

  • Worcestershire flagFlying the flag

    Preserving the identities of England's counties

  • Female model's bottom in leopard skin trousers as she walks up the catwalkBum deal

    Why budget buttock ops can be bad for your health

  • The OfficeIn pictures

    Fifty landmark shows from 50 years of BBC Two

  • French luxury Tea House, Mariage Freres display of tea pots Tea for tu

    France falls back in love with tea - but don't expect a British cuppa

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.