ESA's Planck mission is yielding some surprising findings along with a beautiful new map of the Milky Way that breaks down some of the key elements of our galaxy. The telescope spent four years studying the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a relic from the birth of the universe. The resulting data from this endeavor is now helping us refine how we measure matter, how we understand dark matter and generally just unraveling the secrets of the universe.
It is believed that the ancient light currently being detected by Planck first came into being roughly 370,000 years after the event that we know as the Big Bang. The charged particles that had previously prevented the free travel of light began to dissipate, allowing the light to begin a journey spanning many billions of years, culminating in detection by Planck's instruments. However Planck does not only detect the microwave wavelength fossil light of the CMB, but also a myriad of constituent elements present in the milky way, both directly and indirectly.
"Planck can see the old light from our universe's birth, gas and dust in our own galaxy, and pretty much everything in between, either directly or by its effect on the old light," explains Project scientist for the Planck mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Charles Lawrence.
The data analyzed by the team suggests that the epoch known as the Dark Ages, the period of time between the formation of the universe and the creation of the first star, is significantly longer than previously believed.
Earlier observations undertaken by telescopes such as NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) led us to believe that this era persevered for around 300 to 400 million years, however a preliminary analysis of the new data is causing scientists to revise up their estimates to around 550 million years after the Big Bang.
Planck's surveys are also proving instrumental in measuring the masses of distant galaxy clumps. The new survey cataloged 400 such galaxy clusters, with masses ranging from 1 to 1,000 times that of our own galaxy. The team was able to calculate the masses of the clusters by observing bends in the CMB as it traveled past the massive clusters.
Further more, splotchy areas of the Planck map indicate where matter clumped together in the ancient past to form the kernels of the galaxies that we see today. Deeper analysis of the anomalies may shed light on the galactic evolution process from a very early stage.
The data also supports the theory that dark matter is responsible for forcing the universe apart. However, some scientists suspect that dark matter doesn't actually exist at all, and that it may be gravity itself that forces the universe apart, with the force somehow becoming repulsive instead of attractive at great distances.
As analysis of the Planck data continues, current cosmological theories will undoubtedly be put under ever greater stress, as we hone our understanding of the evolution of our universe through the observation of ancient light.