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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 16, 2006
New Satellite Data on Universe's First Trillionth Second
Scientists peering back to the oldest light in the universe have new
evidence for what happened within its first trillionth of a second, when
the universe suddenly grew from submicroscopic to astronomical size in
far less than a wink of the eye.
Using new data from a NASA satellite, scientists have the best evidence
yet to support this scenario, known as "inflation." The evidence, from
the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, was gathered
during three years of continuous observations of remnant afterglow light
-- cosmic background radiation that lingers, much cooled, from the
universe's energetic beginnings 13.7 billion years ago.
In 2003, NASA announced that the WMAP satellite had produced a detailed
picture of the infant universe by measuring fluctuations in temperature
of the afterglow -- answering many longstanding questions about the
universe's age, composition and development. The WMAP team has built
upon those results with a new measurement of the faint glare from the
afterglow to obtain clues about the universe's first moments, when the
seeds were sown for the formation of the first stars 400 million years
"It amazes me that we can say anything about what transpired within the
first trillionth of a second of the universe, but we can," said Charles
L. Bennett (pictured at right), WMAP principal investigator and a
professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy
at The Johns Hopkins University. "We have never before been able to
understand the infant universe with such precision. It appears that the
infant universe had the kind of growth spurt that would alarm any mom or
WMAP results have been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and are
posted online at
The newly detected pattern, or polarization signal, in the glare of the
afterglow is the weakest cosmological signal ever detected -- less than
a hundredth of the strength of the temperature signal reported three
years ago. "This is brand new territory," said Princeton University
physicist Lyman Page, a WMAP team member. "We are quantifying the cosmos
in a different way to open up a new window for understanding the
universe in its earliest times."
Comparing the brightness of broad features to compact features in the
afterglow light (like comparing the heights of short-distance ripples
versus long-distance waves on a lake) helps tell the story of the infant
universe. One long-held prediction was that the brightness would be the
same for features of all sizes. In contrast, the simplest versions of
inflation predict that the relative brightness decreases as the features
get smaller. WMAP data are new evidence for the inflation prediction.
The new WMAP data, combined with other cosmology data, also support
established theories on what has happened to matter and energy over the
past 13.7 billion years since its inflation, according to the WMAP
researchers. The result is a tightly constrained and consistent picture
of how our universe grew from microscopic quantum fluctuations to enable
the formation of stars, planets and life.
According to this picture, researchers say that only 4 percent of the
universe is ordinary familiar atoms; another 22 percent is an as-yet
unidentified dark matter, and 74 percent is a mysterious dark energy.
That dark energy is now causing another growth spurt for the universe,
fortunately, they say, more gentle than the one 13.7 billion years ago.
WMAP was launched on June 30, 2001, and is now a million miles from
Earth in the direction opposite the sun. It is able to track temperature
fluctuations at levels finer than a millionth of a degree.
The WMAP team includes researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt, Md.; The Johns Hopkins University; Princeton University; the
Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto; the
University of Texas at Austin; Cornell University; the University of
Chicago; Brown University in Providence, R.I.; the University of British
Columbia; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of
California, Los Angeles.
For images and more information: