A team of scientists from Washington believe that they have managed to establish the exact size of the universe to within 1 per cent accuracy.
In a remarkable development, the researchers, who were working with the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), have been able to measure the distances to galaxies that are over 6 billion light years away.
"There are not many things in our daily lives that we know to 1-percent accuracy," said David Schlegel, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the principal investigator of BOSS. "I now know the size of the universe better than I know the size of my house."
This level of precision is unprecedented, and may provide the most enlightened source of data regarding the curvature of space. The measurements indicate that the universe expands on a level plane, allowing its shape to be evaluated using Euclidean geometry, where straight lines are parallel and the angles in a triangle add up to 180 degrees.
"One of the reasons we care is that a flat universe has implications for whether the universe is infinite," Schlegel said. "That means — while we can’t say with certainty that it will never come to an end — it’s likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time. Our results are consistent with an infinite universe."
The new technology has been able to highlight the properties of "dark energy", the unknown force that appears to be driving the expansion of the universe. Dark energy is believed to make up around three quarters of the total mass and energy of the universe, far outweighing other forms of matter. Although scientists have been able to ascertain that it exists and how much of it there is, they still don’t really know what it is.
"We don’t yet understand what dark energy is, but we can measure its properties," Daniel Eisenstein, a Harvard University astronomer working with the survey, said in a statement. "Then, we compare those values to what we expect them to be, given our current understanding of the universe. The better our measurements, the more we can learn."
The scientists studied the locations of 1.2 million galaxies, and found that the new measurements substantiated the concept of the "cosmological constant," a theory originally put forward by Albert Einstein; based on this, it appears that dark energy has remained constant since the birth of the universe. The new results have been compared with previous surveys, enabling scientists to ascertain how the universe has developed.
"Making these measurements at two different distances allows us to see how the expansion of the universe has changed over time, which will help us understand why it is accelerating," explained University of Portsmouth astronomer Rita Tojeiro, who co-chairs the BOSS galaxy clustering working group along with Jeremy Tinker of New York University.
The astronomers used a spectrograph on the Sloan Foundation’s 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico to make their observations.
"On a clear night when everything goes perfectly, we can add more than 8,000 galaxies and quasars to the map," Kaike Pan, who leads the team of observers working with the spectrograph, said in a statement.
The new results, which were presented by Schlegel and his colleagues on January 8th at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, will pave the way for even more accurate assessments of universal dimensions in the future.
Schegel added: "Future surveys will be doing more of this, both filling in this map of the universe, [and] the enormous volume of the universe we have yet to map out and doing this with even higher precision."
So, mysterious dark matter is the driving force behind the universe; what do you think this is?
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