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The Dawn of Time

USC Dornsife’s Elena Pierpaoli leads team that generates a map revealing the universe’s real age.

Elena Pierpaoli, professor of physics and astronomy in USC Dornsife, and her team generate the most detailed map to date made of cosmic background radiation — the  oldest light in the universe. Photo by Roger Snider.
Elena Pierpaoli, professor of physics and astronomy in USC Dornsife, and her team generate the most detailed map to date made of cosmic background radiation — the oldest light in the universe. Photo by Roger Snider.

The universe is 80 million years older and is expanding more slowly than previously believed, according to new findings that still appear to confirm the standard model of cosmology.

The data was gathered by the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Planck space telescope and analyzed by a multinational team that included a group led by Elena Pierpaoli, professor of physics and astronomy in USC Dornsife.

The team generated the most detailed map to date made of cosmic background radiation — the so-called fossil radiation that is the oldest light in the universe, dating back to when the sky was just 380,000 years old.

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) map shows the temperature fluctuations throughout the nascent universe that later coalesced and grew into stars and galaxies.

The standard model of cosmology, known as inflation theory, suggests that a brief exponential expansion of the early universe occurred momentarily after the big bang, followed by further expansion at a slower rate.

The newly generated CMB map would seem to confirm that theory, although its unprecedented level of detail reveals some odd features that are currently unexplained. Those features include a large cold spot, asymmetry between the opposite hemispheres of the sky and temperature fluctuations that do not fit with the predictions made by the standard model.

“The extraordinary quality of Planck’s portrait of the infant universe allows us to peel back its layers to the very foundations, revealing that our blueprint of the cosmos is far from complete,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general.

Launched in 2009, the Planck spacecraft is a constantly rotating telescope that captures a full view of the sky at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

Unlike regular visible-light telescopes, Planck captures light between the infrared and radio wavelengths, offering a peek at the oldest light in the universe.