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Outer Space

NASA finds ‘something weird’ after analyzing decades of Hubble Space Telescope data

"Something weird is going on, possibly involving brand new physics.”

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(NASA)

By Dean Murray via SWNS

NASA has admitted “something weird is going on” as they calibrate over forty so-called "milepost markers" of space and time that measure the expansion rate of the universe.

A new study analyzing 30 years of data from the Hubble Space Telescope is described as the most precise measure of the expansion so far.

In recent years, thanks to data from Hubble and other telescopes, astronomers have found a twist: a discrepancy between the expansion rate as measured in the local universe compared to independent observations from right after the big bang, which predict a different expansion value.

A NASA statement explains: “The cause of this discrepancy remains a mystery. But Hubble data, encompassing a variety of cosmic objects that serve as distance markers, support the idea that something weird is going on, possibly involving brand new physics.”

"You are getting the most precise measure of the expansion rate for the universe from the gold standard of telescopes and cosmic mile markers," said Nobel Laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Riess leads a scientific collaboration investigating the universe's expansion rate called SH0ES, which stands for Supernova, H0, for the Equation of State of Dark Energy.

"This is what the Hubble Space Telescope was built to do, using the best techniques we know to do it. This is likely Hubble's magnum opus, because it would take another 30 years of Hubble's life to even double this sample size," Riess said.

“The cause of this discrepancy remains a mystery. But Hubble data, encompassing a variety of cosmic objects that serve as distance markers, support the idea that something weird is going on, possibly involving brand new physics." (NASA)

Riess's team's paper, to be published in the Special Focus issue of The Astrophysical Journal, reports on completing the biggest and likely last major update on the Hubble constant.

The new results more than double the prior sample of cosmic distance markers. His team also reanalyzed all of the prior data, with the whole dataset now including over 1,000 Hubble orbits.

When NASA conceived of a large space telescope in the 1970s, one of the primary justifications for the expense and extraordinary technical effort was to be able to resolve Cepheids, stars that brighten and dim periodically, seen inside our Milky Way and external galaxies.

Cepheids have long been the gold standard of cosmic mile markers since their utility was discovered by astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1912. To calculate much greater distances, astronomers use exploding stars called Type Ia supernovae.

30 Years, 30 Images

The team measured 42 of the supernova milepost markers with Hubble. Because they are seen exploding at a rate of about one per year, Hubble has, for all practical purposes, logged as many supernovae as possible for measuring the universe's expansion.

Riess states: "We have a complete sample of all the supernovae accessible to the Hubble telescope seen in the last 40 years."

The expansion rate of the universe was predicted to be slower than what Hubble actually sees. By combining the Standard Cosmological Model of the Universe and measurements by the European Space Agency's Planck mission (which observed the relic cosmic microwave background from 13.8 billion years ago), astronomers predict a lower value for the Hubble constant: 67.5 plus or minus 0.5 kilometers per second per megaparsec, compared to the SH0ES team's estimate of 73.

Given the large Hubble sample size, there is only a one-in-a-million chance astronomers are wrong due to an unlucky draw, said Riess, a common threshold for taking a problem seriously in physics.

"There's something weird going on." NASA's new Webb Space Telescope will extend on Hubble's work. (Wikimedia Commons)

This finding is untangling what was becoming a nice and tidy picture of the universe's dynamical evolution. Astronomers are at a loss for an explanation of the disconnect between the expansion rate of the local universe versus the primeval universe, but the answer might involve additional physics of the universe.

Such confounding findings have made life more exciting for cosmologists like Riess. Thirty years ago they started out to measure the Hubble constant to benchmark the universe, but now it has become something even more interesting.

"Actually, I don't care what the expansion value is specifically, but I like to use it to learn about the universe," Riess added.

NASA's new Webb Space Telescope will extend on Hubble's work by showing these cosmic milepost markers at greater distances or sharper resolution than what Hubble can see.

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