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Planck Mission Brings Universe Into Sharp Focus





WASHINGTON, March 21, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Planck space mission has released the most accurate and detailed map ever made of the oldest light in the universe, revealing new information about its age, contents and origins.

(Logo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO )

Planck is a European Space Agency mission. NASA contributed mission-enabling technology for both of Planck's science instruments, and U.S., European and Canadian scientists work together to analyze the Planck data.

The map results suggest the universe is expanding more slowly than scientists thought, and is 13.8 billion years old, 100 million years older than previous estimates. The data also show there is less dark energy and more matter, both normal and dark matter, in the universe than previously known. Dark matter is an invisible substance that only can be seen through the effects of its gravity, while dark energy is pushing our universe apart. The nature of both remains mysterious.

"Astronomers worldwide have been on the edge of their seats waiting for this map," said Joan Centrella, Planck program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These measurements are profoundly important to many areas of science, as well as future space missions. We are so pleased to have worked with the European Space Agency on such a historic endeavor."

The map, based on the mission's first 15.5 months of all-sky observations, reveals tiny temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, ancient light that has traveled for billions of years from the very early universe to reach us. The patterns of light represent the seeds of galaxies and clusters of galaxies we see around us today.

"As that ancient light travels to us, matter acts like an obstacle course getting in its way and changing the patterns slightly," said Charles Lawrence, the U.S. project scientist for Planck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "The Planck map reveals not only the very young universe, but also matter, including dark matter, everywhere in the universe."

The age, contents and other fundamental traits of our universe are described in a simple model developed by scientists, called the standard model of cosmology. These new data have allowed scientists to test and improve the accuracy of this model with the greatest precision yet. At the same time, some curious features are observed that don't quite fit with the simple picture. For example, the model assumes the sky is the same everywhere, but the light patterns are asymmetrical on two halves of the sky, and there is a cold spot extending over a patch of sky that is larger than expected.

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