Research, Science & environment

Universe expanding faster than expected

A new, precise measurement of how fast the universe is expanding doesn’t agree with predictions based on our current understanding of the physics of the cosmos

Astronomers have obtained the most precise measurement yet of how fast the universe is expanding, and it doesn’t agree with predictions based on other data and our current understanding of the physics of the cosmos.

One of the galaxies used in the study.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy UGC 9391, one of the galaxies in the new survey. UGC 9391 contains the two types of stars – Cepheid variables and a Type 1a supernova – that astronomers used to calculate a more precise Hubble constant. Click on the image to see the red circles that mark the locations of Cepheids. The blue “X” denotes the location of supernova 2003du, a Type Ia supernova. The observations for this composite image were taken between 2012 and 2013 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. (Image by NASA, ESA, and A. Riess [STScI/JHU])

The discrepancy — the universe is now expanding 9 percent faster than expected — means either that measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation are wrong, or that some unknown physical phenomenon is speeding up the expansion of space, the astronomers say.

“If you really believe our number — and we have shed blood, sweat and tears to get our measurement right and to accurately understand the uncertainties — then it leads to the conclusion that there is a problem with predictions based on measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the leftover glow from the Big Bang,” said Alex Filippenko, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy and co-author of a paper announcing the discovery.

“Maybe the universe is tricking us, or our understanding of the universe isn’t complete,” he added.

The cause could be the existence of another, unknown particle — perhaps an often-hypothesized fourth flavor of neutrino — or that the influence of dark energy (which accelerates the expansion of the universe) has increased over the 13.8 billion-year history of the universe. Or perhaps Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the basis for the Standard Model, is slightly wrong.

“This surprising finding may be an important clue to understanding those mysterious parts of the universe that make up 95 percent of everything and don’t emit light, such as dark energy, dark matter and dark radiation,” said the leader of the study, Nobel laureate Adam Riess, of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore. Riess is a former UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow who worked with Filippenko.

The results, using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck I telescope in Hawaii, will appear in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Afterglow of Big Bang

A few years ago, the European Space Agency’s Planck observatory — now out of commission — measured fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation to document the universe’s early history. Planck’s measurements, combined with the current Standard Model of physics, predicted an expansion rate today of 66.53 (plus or minus 0.62) kilometers per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec equals 3.26 million light-years.

how the study was conducted

Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the distances to a class of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables to calibrate their true brightness, so that they could be used as cosmic yardsticks to measure distances to galaxies much farther away. This method is more precise than the classic parallax technique. (Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, A. Feild [STScI], and A. Riess [STScI/JHU])

Previous direct measurements of galaxies pegged the current expansion rate, or Hubble constant, between 70 and 75 km/sec/Mpc, give or take about 5−10 percent — a result that is not definitely in conflict with the Planck predictions. But the new direct measurements yield a rate of 73.24 (±1.74) km/sec/Mpc, an uncertainty of only 2.4 percent, clearly incompatible with the Planck predictions, Filippenko said.

The team, several of whom were part of the High-z Supernova Search Team that co-discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe in 1998, refined the universe’s current expansion rate by developing innovative techniques that improved the precision of distance measurements to faraway galaxies.

The team looked for galaxies containing both a type of variable star called a Cepheid and Type Ia supernovae. Cepheid stars pulsate at rates that correspond to their true brightness (power), which can be compared with their apparent brightness as seen from Earth to accurately determine their distance and thus the distance of the galaxy. Type Ia supernovae, another commonly used cosmic yardstick, are exploding stars that flare with the same intrinsic brightness and are brilliant enough to be seen from much longer distances.

By measuring about 2,400 Cepheid stars in 19 nearby galaxies and comparing the apparent brightness of both types of stars, the researchers accurately determined the true brightness of the Type Ia supernovae. They then used this calibration to calculate distances to roughly 300 Type Ia supernovae in far-flung galaxies.

“We needed both the nearby Cepheid distances for galaxies hosting Type Ia supernovae and the distances to the 300 more-distant Type Ia supernovae to determine the Hubble constant,” Filippenko said. “The paper focuses on the 19 galaxies and getting their distances really, really well, with small uncertainties, and thoroughly understanding those uncertainties.”

Calibrating Cepheid variable stars

Using the Keck I 10-meter telescope in Hawaii, Filippenko’s group measured the chemical abundances of gases near the locations of Cepheid variable stars in the nearby galaxies hosting Type Ia supernovae. This allowed them to improve the accuracy of the derived distances of these galaxies, and thus to more accurately calibrate the peak luminosities of their Type Ia supernovae.

“We’ve done the world’s best job of decreasing the uncertainty in the measured rate of universal expansion and of accurately assessing the size of this uncertainty,” said Filippenko, “yet we find that our measured rate of expansion is probably incompatible with the rate expected from observations of the young universe, suggesting that there’s something important missing in our physical understanding of the universe.”

“If we know the initial amounts of stuff in the universe, such as dark energy and dark matter, and we have the physics correct, then you can go from a measurement at the time shortly after the Big Bang and use that understanding to predict how fast the universe should be expanding today,” said Riess. “However, if this discrepancy holds up, it appears we may not have the right understanding, and it changes how big the Hubble constant should be today.”

Aside from an increase in the strength with which dark energy is pushing the universe apart, and the existence of a new fundamental subatomic particle – a nearly speed-of-light particle called “dark radiation” – another possible explanation is that dark matter possesses some weird, unexpected characteristics. Dark matter is the backbone of the universe upon which galaxies built themselves into the large-scale structures seen today.

The Hubble observations were made with Hubble’s sharp-eyed Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), and were conducted by the Supernova H0 for the Equation of State (SHOES) team, which works to refine the accuracy of the Hubble constant to a precision that allows for a better understanding of the universe’s behavior.

The SHOES Team is still using Hubble to reduce the uncertainty in the Hubble constant even more, with a goal to reach an accuracy of 1 percent. Telescopes such as the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite, and future telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an infrared observatory, and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), also could help astronomers make better measurements of the expansion rate.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C. The W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.

Filippenko’s research was supported by NASA, the National Science Foundation, the TABASGO Foundation, Gary and Cynthia Bengier and the Christopher R. Redlich Fund.