Looking back 13.7 billion years, astronomers have collected data that tells us, with greater precision than ever before, what happened in the first two-trillionths of a second after the big bang. The data agrees very well with theoretical predictions and may tell us something about the way the universe is behaving today, particularly why it is expanding faster than it ought to be.
NASA/ WMAP Science Team.
A map of the cosmic microwave background of the universe as detected by NASAs WMAP satellite. The uneven distribution is believed to reflect the distribution of the very first particles formed after the big bang.
"Observation is helping us constrain the theories," said Rachel Bean, Cornell assistant professor of astronomy, who is both a cosmology theorist and a member of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team, which on March 10 released a high-resolution picture of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a sort of signature of the big bang.
For cosmologists in general, the WMAP data confirms a widely held theory called the Lambda-CDM (cold dark matter) model, a mathematical description of how the big bang might have played out. For Bean, it throws light on her efforts to explain "dark energy." Recent observations of supernovae suggest that the expansion of the universe is not just "coasting" from the big bang, but that the expansion is accelerating. Some unknown energy source is exerting a force contrary to gravity. Theorists postulate a cosmological constant -- a fundamental property of space -- or something called quintessence -- a sort of energy field.
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