Posted on April 2nd, 2013

Reaching Orbit – The Universe is Older Than it Looks

PlanckThe Planck satellite offers the sharpest images of our past. The image above illustrates the detection capability of past satellites compared to the Planck instrument. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA)

Planck_OldThe image above is the most recent map of the oldest light in the Universe taken from the Planck satellite. (Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration)

The Planck spacecraft was launched into orbit on May 14, 2009. While it reached orbit a number of years ago, it continues to make astonishing discoveries about the age of the Universe. Ever since the Big Bang light has expanded from the center of the Universe outward. The Planck mission was launched to measure (in greater detail) the variations in the oldest light. Greater fidelity into the cosmic microwave background  advances our understanding of the Universe’s age, mass, size, geometry and composition. The most monumental question still to be answered is whether or not the Universe will continue to expand or eventually collapse on itself.

The most recent map derived from Planck satellite data suggests that the Universe is actually older then the most recent estimates by 100 million years. This may seem like a terribly long time to us; however, it has taken that light 13.8 billion years to reach our eyes. The map data is full of new information that scientists are using to unravel more puzzles about our Universe. For example, while the amount of dark energy appears to be less than originally believed, the amount of normal and dark matter is now believed to be more than original estimates.

The Planck satellite makes these discoveries look rather easy, it takes a couple images and BAM!, a new breakthrough. The supercomputer at the Department of Energy would have a thing or two to say about that. While Planck has taken roughly 1,000 images of every point in the sky, the supercomputer has analyzed all of these images.

And analyzing all this data is not a simple task! For one, Planck is imaging light that is behind most of the objects in the Universe, and as you can imagine there are more than enough objects to make this a difficult task. Another major problem is feedback from Planck’s own detectors. Due to their high sensitivity and noise creation, the supercomputer has to isolate this digital noise and remove it from the raw data. The supercomputer has performed these calculations on about a trillion points, and I’m not being demonstrative.

On any other computer this would be an impossible task, I’m sure we can all imagine how many blue screens would pop-up. The supercomputer at the Department of Energy is one of the fastest in the world, making a quintillion calculations per second and was certainly up to the task. With tens of thousands of processors, the supercomputer can sift through all of the data in just a couple weeks, bringing the new Planck map of the Universe to fruition.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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