Mar 21 2013
Captured light from the dawn of time shows the universe is older than was thought - but only by 48 million years.
Scientists are scratching their heads over an imprint of radiation left behind by the Big Bang that gave birth to the cosmos.
As well as providing a more accurate age for the universe, at 13.82 billion years, it has revealed new mysteries and questions.
The image, looking surprisingly like a colourfully wrapped Easter egg, was produced by the European Space Agency's Planck telescope which has been studying the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) for more than 15 months.
British scientists are playing a major role in the Planck mission. The super-sensitive £510 million (600 million euro) space telescope can detect tiny ripples in the CMB that represent the earliest seeds of stars and galaxies. They date back to when the universe was just 380,000 years old, making the glow of the CMB the oldest light ever seen.
At that time the cosmos consisted of a formless hot primordial soup of energetic particles. The incredibly small temperature fluctuations uncovered by Planck correspond to regions that later gave rise to the structured universe we see today.
They appear to match variations predicted by "inflation", a theory that says the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light an instant after the Big Bang. Inflation is vital to our current understanding of the universe.
"The sizes of these tiny ripples hold the key to what happened in that first trillionth of a trillionth of a second," said Planck scientist Dr Joanna Dunkley, from Oxford University. "Planck has given us striking new evidence that indicates they were created during this incredibly fast expansion, just after the Big Bang."
Evidence from Planck also provides a better idea of how the mass-energy of the universe is divided up into parts that are visible and hidden. Normal matter that forms stars and galaxies contributes just 4.9%, according to the findings.
Dark matter, whose nature is still unknown and can only be detected by its gravitational influence, makes up 26.8%, a fifth more than was previously thought.