The 'Best Map Ever of the Universe'

The oldest light in the universe ... is even older than we thought.

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A map of the earliest light in the universe -- click to embiggen. (ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

What does the universe look like?

It looks, it turns out, a little something like the image above -- a map that details what NASA is calling "the oldest light in our universe." That light, the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, was imprinted on the sky when the universe was young (it was, essentially, the glowing aftermath of the Big Bang). And it has now been detected with the greatest precision ever achieved by a collaboration among Earth's science agencies.

That effort, the Planck mission, was launched in May 2009 and is headed by the European Space Agency -- but it also includes significant participation from Canadian researchers and from NASA (through its Jet Propulsion Laboratory). The project has been measuring the CMB -- which is otherwise known as the thermal radiation that fills the observable universe -- over a broad range of far-infrared wavelengths. And it's been doing that work with one of the broadest goals imaginable: solving mysteries about the early history and the later development of the cosmic stew we call home.

Today, the Planck mission made a big announcement: The universe, it turns out, is 13.8 billion years old -- 100 million years older than we previously thought. And it's also expanding more slowly than we previously thought. Oh, AND: It seems to have less dark energy, and more matter (of both the normal and dark varieties) than we previously realized. 

The Planck discoveries, in all, significantly alter our understanding of the universe.

And the map above is a significant aspect of that alteration. It depicts minute temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of the universe that have slightly different densities, representing what NASA calls, poetically, "the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today." In that, the map reveals patterns of light that scientists can, in turn, use to augment our current knowledge of the universe even further -- so we can better understand its origins, its contents, and, just maybe, its fate.

[For more on the Planck findings, here's NASA's detail of them. And, for the especially bold/motivated/nerdy, here are the Planck papers themselves.]

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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