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


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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


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  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    Why is the Universe egg shaped & not more spherical?"

    Because it was laid by the Giant Astrochicken of the Multiverses of course...I thought everyone knew that? ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    This proves that the almighty created a big bang. The atheists think that righteous religious people believe God clicked his fingers. No, God had to create the universe and to create it, he made this huge explosion

    How else could this huge explosion occur? from what? thin air? everyone knows fire needs oxygen.

    You can't just have a black, empty space and suddenly a big bang.

    This proves God.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Why does every have your say on a science subject end up turning into a discussion about religion versus science. You believe in god I don't great. Can we not just talk about the points made in the article instead of trying to compare facts with fiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    This looks like a sort of Mollweide's projection of the Universe? Does that mean all the light around the edges and through the middle is distorted? Is this just another elaborate piece of colourful artwork?

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    If everything explained in some books long ago why not go to the scientist meetings and let them know. At least they will spend some time on other things.

    I don't think BBC is that stupid to publish this news if its copied from that book

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Fascinating article except for use of the word "confirmation". A theory regarding a one-time historical event cannot be proved by empirical science as the same conditions cannot be re-created; the outcome is not reproducible. Any new evidence can only be described as "supportive" and not confirmatory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    Change depends upon an unchanging context; our ability to form abstract concepts that can be pluralised depends upon a social/linguistic pointing out; this cannot involve an infinite generational regress cause that would empty the regress of its source; therefore the source of our abstract conceptual thought is the unchanging. He speaks His conceptual (judged) universe into being; we are His.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    Just now

    397 MICK

    "these minor aspects of life are left to the billions of units of discarded liquid(sperm=humans) to develop"

    But condoning slavery and the oppression of women has been left in? mmm

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    417. Paul H

    Contrary to popular visualisation, the orbitary model for the atom, or Bohr model, is incorrect, and electrons actually exist in different probability clouds around the nucleus, dictated by their energy level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    Science and religion can be seen as two halves of the same coin - science uses its head, while religion relies on tales.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    If there is no god then surely "religion" is a result of evolution, i.e. mankind evolved to a state where it was able to invent the notion of a god (or gods). This being the case, then evolution, not religion can only be blamed for all that's wrong with the world. After all, you can't point the finger at god if he/she doesn't exist, can you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    @352 AKOOB - does antiquity of source have any bearing on its truth? When the Quran was being written, much of Europe saw Aristotle as one of the most important scientific sources in the world due to his antiquity (some 2350 years ago). But Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things, like the elements, humours, senses and also bees. We know better now because of investigative science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    As a scientist and a Christian it saddens me that these type of news stories always descend into Church vs. Science. The two are not exclusive.

    This piece of new is fascinating and an amazing discovery, it neither proves nor disproves God. It is simply an brilliant piece of scientific research.

    I believe God was the author of the Big Bang, others do not. It is not about Science vs. God.

  • Comment number 418.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    To me looks like another planet earth at a distance. Could the Earth be modelled on the Universe? After all planets orbit stars and the same principal seems to apply to atoms ... Is this some sort of common denominator?

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    What went Bang?

    Everything that there ever is, was and will be, all time, space and matter was squeezed into one infinitely, unquantifiable point. At the Big Bang, it "expanded" extremely rapidly, to fill the void that was previously around it. The bang was the sheer amount of energy this brought into being, focused in such a small area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    I would reccommend reading a book called "How the Universe got it's spots" by Janna Levin before commenting on this article. Many commentors have made some simply jaw-dropping misconceptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.


    In response to your queries:

    There are not enough characters allowed to explain these complex questions.

    I think God with his almighty hands placed the billions of stars there one by one then placed a planet next to our star flicking it with his little finger to start the orbit around the sun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    @368. Couldnt agree more. Some people like myself just get infuriated when, pillocks come rushing in from the god train and wave the science cant prove gods existance stick. But yet the column says nothing about science proving god. There was the same argument when we put rovers on Mars, as if some people believed we was going there to look for god... Still i applaud those with a calm approach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    I'm a religious man, studying maths at university. I believe religion and science are trying to find the answer to the same question, and that as science and religion advance they come closer to the same conclusions. God works in very natural ways. God could have instigated of the Big Bang, and used evolution to create. Many religious people however are unwilling to develop their inherited beliefs


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