Summary: The universe isn’t just expanding, it’s accelerating.
Original author and publication date: Bruce Dominey – February 1, 2021
Futurizonte Editor’s Note: Is this the beginning of the end of the Universe? Should we worry about it?
From the article:
For almost a century, astronomers have known that the universe is expanding. Space-time is stretching itself out over billions of light-years, carrying the galaxies within it apart, like raisins embedded within a rising loaf of bread. This steady expansion, pitted against the cosmos’ urge to collapse under its own gravity, means there are two main scenarios for how the universe will eventually end. These scenarios are dubbed the Big Crunch — where gravity overcomes expansion and the Big Bang occurs in reverse — and the Big Freeze — where gravity loses out to the expansion and all matter is isolated by unfathomable distances. (See “The Big Crunch vs. the Big Freeze,” page 50.)
For a while, researchers believed the universe’s fate was leaning toward the final scenario.
But, in the late 1990s, astronomers discovered something unexpected that changed our understanding of the future of the universe: The most distant galaxies weren’t just moving away from us. They were accelerating.
A cosmological puzzle
This phenomenon was independently discovered by two teams of astronomers who were measuring distant supernovae to calculate the precise rate at which the universe was expanding, expecting to find it slowing down. Three of these scientists — Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess, and Brian Schmidt — shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.
The award-winning observations came from a survey of distant type Ia supernovae. Astronomers believe these explosions are triggered when a white dwarf — the dense remnant of a Sun-like star — accretes matter that pushes it over a physical mass limit. That limit is the same for all white dwarfs, making all type Ia supernovae the same true brightness. This property made these supernovae ideal standard distance markers, or standard candles, in the mid-1990s.
The two teams were actually looking back into time for the onset of cosmic deceleration: They were looking for the point in time at which gravity gained the upper hand over the cosmos’ rapid acceleration after the Big Bang. This moment would mark a turnaround, as gravity finally started to slow the rate at which galaxies and clusters of galaxies are pulled away from one another by the expansion of the universe.
Since scientists know the true brightness of the standard candles, they could anticipate how bright these distant supernovae would be if expansion was slowing down. But instead, they found the observed type Ia supernovae were 25 percent fainter than expected, proving that the universe’s expansion isn’t slowing down, but instead is speeding up.
By the end of 1998, both teams had submitted papers detailing their findings to academic journals. Perlmutter’s team published its paper in The Astrophysical Journal and Riess and Schmidt’s team published in The Astronomical Journal.
The conclusion of both: A large percent of the universe is made up of something previously undiscovered and unexpected. And this so-called dark energy is overpowering gravity and pushing space-time apart from within.