After nearly a decade in space, the European Space Agency, ESA, is now completing the groundbreaking Planck mission. Planck was launched into space in 2009 to explore the origin of the universe in the period after the Big Bang.
Using data from Planck, researchers have, among other things, calculated that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old (13.787 billion years +/-0.020 billion years), and is thus slightly older than previously assumed.
The research team behind the mission recently received the prestigious Gruber Cosmology Prize, which is awarded by Yale University in the United States. Part of the credit goes to DTU Space, which has supplied equipment for Planck in the form of mirrors and has contributed to delivering groundbreaking research results based on the data collected by the spacecraft in space.
“The Planck mission has given us a lot more certainty in our knowledge of the early development of the universe. We’re proud to have contributed to this and of being awarded a prize,” says Hans Ulrik Nørgaard-Nielsen, who is astronomer at DTU Space and has been involved in the Planck mission from the outset.
“Highly accurate measurements have been made, and we have removed a lot of noise, which means that the cosmological quantities utilized in the description of the universe are now much more reliable. You must remember that we’re talking about finding knowledge by looking at tiny variations in light in space, and these can very easily be lost in ‘noise’ from other phenomena out there. So much of the work has been about cleaning our data, and it’s been a huge success.”
Before Planck entered space, the age of the universe had been calculated at 13.772 billion years, and the uncertainty regarding this figure was three times higher than in the new calculation.
More than 900 scientific publications
The Planck mission has provided a large amount of new knowledge, which has now been distributed on more than 900 scientific publications.
The mission has measured small variations in remnant light generated immediately after the Big Bang, a phenomenon called the cosmic microwave background or CMB.
These small variations—where analyses of light are converted into small temperature differences which can be visualized by way of a map of the early universe—hold information about the age, expansion and contents of the universe.
When the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago, the universe was so dense that light could not pass through. It was not until some 380,000 years later that the light emitted from the Big Bang could move through space. And it is this light which has now been mapped to a higher level of detail than the few previous missions have been able to.
In addition to determining the age of the universe, work has also been done to calculate how quickly the universe is expanding and to understand its origins.
DTU researcher demonstrates extreme expansion of the universe
The prevailing theory today is that the universe started with a phase called inflation—an extreme expansion of the universe for a fraction of a second. It then grew to the gigantic, visible universe we know today, and which is still expanding.
This theory can be confirmed through specific measurements of a phenomenon called B-modes. This is polarized light, which has a size and a direction. According to the theory, this phenomenon can only occur in connection with inflation.
So if B-modes can be detected in the Planck data and verified, it will be the first direct empirical evidence showing that the inflation phase did indeed occur.
And, in fact, Hans Ulrik Nørgaard-Nielsen has succeeded in detecting B-modes in the data sets from Planck on two occasions.
“At the moment, I’m the only one who has demonstrated this, and if it holds true, we have thus demonstrated inflation empirically,” says the DTU researcher, who has just had his second article on the discovery published in the scientific journal Astronomische Nachrichten.
However, there is no broad consensus among astronomers as to whether the B-modes and the demonstration of inflation are unequivocal.
“I’ve done the calculations based on two different data sets, and have reached the same result. Now it’s been published, and time will tell whether others will come to similar results and be able to confirm my findings along the way. That’s the nature of science,” says Hans Ulrik Nørgaard-Nielsen.
The last data set from the Planck mission was released by ESA earlier this summer. It is called ‘The Planck Legacy Data Release’.
This completes one of this millennium’s most significant space missions, on which DTU Space has made a big mark.