Expansion of universe measured in an era before dark energy takes over

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For the past 5 billion years, the expansion of the universe has been powered by a mysterious repulsive force known as dark energy. Now, thanks to a new technique for measuring the three-dimensional structure of the distant universe, scientists in an international team within the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), including an astronomer at Penn State University, have made the first measurement of the rate of this cosmic expansion as it was just 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

"Observations in the past 15 years have revealed that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating," said Donald Schneider, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, a coauthor of the study. "Most cosmological models predict that when the universe was young, dark energy had little influence on the expansion; at that time the evolution of the large-scale structure of the universe was dominated by gravitation, which is an attractive force that acted to slow the expansion. The new SDSS-III observations are an important probe of this early era." Schneider is the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's survey coordinator and scientific publications coordinator.

"If we think of the universe as a roller coaster, then today we are rushing downhill, gaining speed as we go," said Nicolas Busca of the Laboratoire Astroparticule et Cosmologie of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), one of the lead authors of the study. "Our new measurement tells us about the time when the universe was climbing the hill -- still being slowed by gravity." These research results are detailed in a paper submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. A preprint of the paper is posted on the arXiv.org preprint site.

The new measurement is based on data from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), one of the four surveys that make up SDSS-III. It uses a technique pioneered by the SDSS in 2005 called "baryon acoustic oscillations" (BAO). The BAO technique uses small variations in matter left over from the early universe as a "standard ruler" to compare the size of the universe at various points in its history.

Using that new standard ruler to observe a part of the universe that now is so very far away requires new techniques because objects like galaxies there are so faint when observed from Earth. Instead, the new technique makes use of the clustering of intergallactic hydrogen gas in the distant universe. Astronomers can see this gas because it absorbs some light from the quasars lying behind the gas. Measurements of the spectrums of these quasars reveal not only the light emitted by the quasar, but also what happened to that light in its long journey to Earth. A quasar's spectrum reveals how the intervening gas absorbs some of the quasar's light. Measuring this absorption -- a phenomenon known as the Lyman-alpha Forest -- yields a detailed picture of the gas between Earth and the quasar.

"It's a cool technique, because we're essentially measuring the shadows cast by gas along a single line billions of light-years long," said Anze Slosar of Brookhaven National Laboratory. "The tricky part is combining all those one-dimensional maps into a three-dimensional map. It's like trying to see a picture that's been painted on the quills of a porcupine." For the first time, the team's new map is large enough to detect the subtle variations of baryon acoustic oscillations in the faraway Lyman-alpha forest gas. It measures the Lyman-alpha forest using light from 50,000 quasars all over the sky.

The team's new measurement of the baryon acoustic oscillation peak, combined with measurements of the same peak at other points in the universe's history, paints a picture of how the universe has evolved. The picture that emerges is consistent with the current scientific understanding of the universe -- that dark energy is a constant part of space throughout the cosmos. What is fascinating about the new result is that, for the first time, it reveals how dark energy worked at a time before the universe's current acceleration started.

The BOSS measurements show that the expansion of the universe was slowing down 11 billion years ago due to the mutual gravitational attraction of all of the galaxies in the universe -- but that as the universe expanded, the constant repulsive force of dark energy began to dominate as matter was diluted by the expansion of space. Thus, more than 80 years after Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre first measured the expansion rate of the nearby universe, the SDSS-III has made the same measurement of the expansion rate of the universe as it was 11 billion years ago.

"No technique has ever been able to probe this ancient era before," said BOSS principal investigator David Schlegel of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Back then, the expansion of the universe was slowing down; today, it's speeding up. How dark energy caused the transition from deceleration to acceleration is one of the most challenging questions in cosmology."

SDSS-III will continue to learn more about dark energy as it collects more than a million and a half galaxies and more than 160,000 quasars by the end of the survey in 2014. By the time SDSS-III is complete, it will have helped to transform the Lyman-alpha-forest technique from a risky idea into a standard method by which astronomers explore the nature of the faraway universe.

Funding for SDSS-III has been provided by the Alfred P.Sloan Foundation, the Participating Institutions, the National Science Foundation and the U S.Department of Energy Office of Science.

To view the complete story and see another image, go to http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2012-news/Schneider11-2012.

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Last Updated November 19, 2012