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Our expanding Universe

In 1998, two independent teams of astrophysicists discovered a baffling phenomenon: the Universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate. The current understanding of gravity can't explain this cosmic acceleration. Scientists think that either a mysterious force called dark energy is to blame—or a reworking of gravitational theory is in order. Travel to the University of California's Lick Observatory to learn how astrophysicists use distant stellar explosions to observe the expansion of space. Then watch a team at Fermilab assemble the Dark Energy Camera, a new device researchers hope will find compelling evidence of what's propelling the Universe to expand at an increasing pace. Created by American Museum of Natural History.

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Video transcript

The Expanding Universe When we talk about the expansion of the Universe, it’s not that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are like bullets zooming through some preexisting space. Rather space itself, the space between galaxies and clusters of galaxies, is expanding. In the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve discovered that that expansion is currently speeding up with time, accelerating. Trying to figure out what’s causing the acceleration of the Universe is perhaps the biggest unsolved problem in all of physics. Our perception of the evolution of the Universe has certainly changed a lot with time. For example, Albert Einstein thought the Universe is static, neither expanding nor collapsing, and so did many scientists of his time. But Edwin Hubble discovered in 1929 the Universe is actually expanding. The Universe began its existence in a cataclysmic event we call the Big Bang, in a sense like a gigantic explosion. The expansion of the Universe was the expansion of all of space. That is all there was, and it was expanding. In 1998, there were two teams of astronomers who were studying supernovae, exploding stars, at large distances from us. And they saw that these exploding stars appeared to be somewhat fainter than we expected them to be. They realized that the simplest explanation was that the expansion of the Universe has been speeding up over the last five billion years or so. And this came as a real shock, because in our conventional understanding of gravity and the behavior of matter, we would have expected that over time the Universe would be slowing down, because all the matter in the Universe is attracting all the other matter. Either there’s some new stuff out in the Universe, that we call dark energy, which has the property that it’s gravitationally repulsive so it would make the Universe speed up, or we have to admit that our understanding of gravity has some holes in it. In order to determine what causes the Universe to accelerate in its expansion, we need to measure more carefully the detailed expansion history of the Universe. This can be done by looking at the expansion as a function of time. To plot the history of the expansion rate, we need to look at the distances of galaxies versus the speed with which they are going away from us, or the red shift, as astronomers call it. Getting distances of galaxies is kind of like estimating the distance of a car at night. You look at how bright its headlights appear to be. You compare that with the known brightness of headlights of a car of known distance, a nearby car, and in this way you get the distance of the distant car, just by comparing the brightness of the headlights. So, in the case of astronomy, if we find stars and galaxies whose true power, whose brightness we really know, and we measure the apparent brightness, well, then we can determine the distance. The type of star that we use is called the type 1a supernova. That looks good. Yeah. This to me looks like a pretty good supernova candidate. We use KAIT, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope, to discover new supernovae. And we use the three-meter Shane reflecting telescope to obtain spectra of those supernovae and study them in detail. This allows us to probe the extremes. I mean that’s what we need to do. That’s why I’m intrigued by this one. Right now, we know that the Universe is expanding faster than it was four or five billion years ago, and we know that four or five billion years ago it was expanding more slowly than another four or five billion years back before that. So that’s sort of three data points. We’d like more measurements of the Universe. So we want to install S2 into position 30S, which is right in the top center. O.K. The dark energy survey is a project aiming at trying to understand what’s causing the expansion of the Universe to speed up. O.K., I have it now on this side. O.K., I’ll take it. We’re building a large camera with about five hundred megapixels. And this is going to go on a four-meter telescope in Chile that will study about 300 million galaxies over an area covering about 10 percent of the sky. The reason we want to do this is to look at the distribution of galaxies in the Universe, the large-scale structure. Galaxies are not just distributed smoothly through space. They tend to be clumped together by gravity. Initially, the Universe was fairly homogenous, had small lumps in it. But then over cosmic time, those lumps were amplified by gravity. We think that that’s how large-scale structure formed. Even though it’s been well tested on scales of our Solar System, we haven’t been able to directly test gravity on cosmic scales. And it’s possible that gravity becomes weaker when we get to very large distances in the Universe. So if we can measure the rate at which galaxies and clusters of galaxies have formed, that tells us about this competition between expansion, which is making things pull apart, and gravity, which is making them clump together. That can help us try to disentangle what’s really causing the Universe to speed up. Is it gravity? Is it dark energy? It’s actually quite remarkable to me that in one short decade, the reaction to the announcement of the accelerating Universe went from utter disbelief to nearly uniform acceptance. That doesn’t mean that we understand what dark energy is or how gravity might be wrong. And I don’t know that it’ll be resolved in my lifetime. My hope is that as we get better data, as we narrow down the theoretical possibilities, someone brilliant will come along and say, “Aha! Here’s clearly what it’s gotta be.” Whether we get to that in the next 5 years, or the next 50 or 100 years, I don’t know. But we have to keep going.