What is Dark Energy?

There is a dark side to the universe; in fact, most of what makes up our cosmos is dark. In our post, entitled “What Is Dark Matter?” we introduced this pie chart that shows the relative composition of everything in the universe.

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Composition of matter in the universe. These numbers have been revised by results from the Planck mission. More info here. Credit: NASA/ESA

This deceptively simple diagram shows the percentages of everything the universe is made of. Embedded in this uncomplicated, straightforward pie chart is a story full of surprises and anxiety.

Measuring the Universe

With the exception of Einstein’s “biggest blunder,” few prior to the 1990’s had any expectation that a cosmological force, such as dark energy, even existed. It was thought that the universe was solely comprised of normal matter and dark matter. There was much debate on the nature of dark matter.  How much is there? How much is made of exotic undiscovered particles versus the more mundane but visibly dark stuff like planets, small stars, etc.?  Much has been learned, but dark matter is still largely a mystery today.  Theories and experiments abound to find all constituents of the missing dark matter, particularly the exotic variety that does not contain normal matter, i.e., those particles that do not interact with normal matter other than via gravitational force.

Dark matter and normal matter both have one thing in common: gravity. Thus, the expectation for astronomers was that they would observe some decrease in the expansion rate of the universe over time due to the pull of gravity from all of the matter in the universe. In the 1990’s, two groups of astronomers attempted to measure the deceleration rate of the universe independently by looking at a whole bunch of Type 1a supernovae.  Type 1a supernovae are the explosions of a certain type of star, where the explosions themselves all have the same intrinsic brightness. You can determine how far away the star is by how bright it appears to us; the dimmer a Type 1a supernova appears, the farther away it must be.  Just like the equivalent of a standard 60–watt lightbulb, finding these “standard candles” allows astronomers to accurately measure the distances, and thus the time in the past, where these explosions took place.

Click here for more information on how Type 1a supernovae were used to measure distances.

What the astronomers actually discovered was far more surprising, and it was important that two different groups did this because, if only one had done it, no one would have believed what actually happened. These teams of astronomers noticed that distant supernovae, whose light from the early epochs of the universe was just now reaching our telescopes, were fainter and thus farther away than expected. In 1998, these two groups both declared that the universe wasn’t decelerating at all – it was accelerating!

This was a completely unexpected result — no one saw it coming. I mean, the universe is full of normal matter and dark matter, all gravitationally pulling on each other as the universe expands. Shouldn’t that mean the universe is slowing down its expansion? One could hear hyperventilating cosmologists from across the globe.

After everyone started to calm down, astronomers began to ask, “OK, so what does it take to have an accelerating universe?”

The answer is, you need something else besides matter. Whatever that is, we call it dark energy.

But What Does Dark Energy Mean?

After the initial surprise of finding an accelerating universe wore off and people started thinking about it, astronomers did something they rarely do — they accepted the idea rather quickly. Usually, an unexpected result like this generates huge debates among scientists, and this did too. The thing is, the notion of a cosmological force like dark energy now solved a lot more problems than it created. In an uncharacteristically short period of time, people started warming to the idea of dark energy.

As a function of time, galaxies are moving away from us at a faster and faster rate, and that is what is meant by an accelerating universe. The discovery of dark energy has brought the ultimate fate of our universe back into question. Will dark energy continue to increase its dominance over gravity and cause our universe to rip apart — a potential fate known as the Big Rip? Or will the repulsive force of dark energy and the attractive force of gravity balance out so that the universe expands forever at a constant, non-accelerating rate? With the current understanding of dark energy, it seems improbable that gravity will reverse the expansion and collapse the universe back in on itself. However, the nature of dark energy is not well understood yet.

 

What’s Next for Dark Energy?

Right now, astronomers are making observations designed to constrain some of the many dark energy models that are out there.  The nature of this research is often done from the ground so that wide areas of the sky can be observed for a very long time. This kind of campaign is not well-suited to a high-demand telescope like the Hubble Space Telescope. The idea is to “constrain,” or better understand, the expansion rate of the universe, and measure the growth of large–scale structure (like galaxy clusters).

Past surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have made some progress, and current projects like the Dark Energy Survey (DES) has started its observing runs. DES will observe 5,000 square degrees of the night sky over 525 nights, making measurements that should help us whittle down some of the many dark–energy models presently being considered. Currently being built is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an 8.4–meter ground-based telescope in Chile, which will image the entire sky every few nights at several wavelengths, and will no doubt play a large role in helping us understand dark energy.

Space-based telescopes do have an essential role to play in characterizing dark energy. For example, Hubble has played a key role in getting data on distant supernovae — hence the discovery of dark energy. It is the combination of ground-based large surveys with space-based pointed deep follow-ups that give us our breakthroughs. Future missions are being envisioned to build on the best of both ground-based surveys and space-based observations. The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will use a Hubble-class, space-based telescope to survey a large portion of the sky in an effort to better constrain the nature of dark energy through the history of the universe.

Frontier Fields and Dark Energy

While the Frontier Fields were not designed to capture the large numbers of supernovae needed to explore dark energy through cosmic time, the observations of strong galaxy cluster lensing will be used in combination with cosmological measurements from other missions to help constrain the nature of dark energy.  Stay tuned for more!

 

7 thoughts on “What is Dark Energy?

  1. Not even a mark to suggest the total mass of normal energy in the pie chart? Negligible?

    • Always wondered about that, and have come up with an oversimplified layman’s explanation… or two:

      – Mass and energy (“normal”) always exist together, and always in the same proportion (E=MC² at rest). Atoms contain both, so that part of the pie includes both.

      – In the universe as a whole, positive energy and negative energy (from gravity) cancel out to equal zero.

      – But that leaves me with another question about the pie chart: where is all the stuff not contained (at any given moment) in atoms? What about electrons that are not orbiting atoms? Are those included, and “atoms” is just an inaccurate label?

      – What about photons (no mass, no time)? Could a pie be drawn to include ALL particles?

  2. […] majority of the mass-energy in the universe is in the form of a mysterious repulsive force known as dark energy. To top it all off, thanks in large part to five servicing missions, Hubble is a more powerful […]

  3. […] But then we learned that the universe is mostly made of something very different: dark matter and dark energy. Astronomy had humbled humanity yet again. I think I always planned to go to grad school for […]

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