Five UCSB scientists played a significant role in the Planck satellite expedition, sponsored by the European Space Agency, which just released an avalanche of scientific papers showing that the universe is about 100 million years older than previously thought, that it is expanding at a slower rate, and that it contains more matter. The UCSB team was involved in developing a prototype Low Frequency Instrument, which was part of the sophisticated recording technology launched into space in 2009 to document the trajectory of cosmic background radiation released immediately after the big bang and the birth of the universe.
Astrophysicist Philip Lubin said the Planck has provided images of microwave radiation released “one-trillionth of a trillionth of a second” after the big bang that’s a million times more detailed than images collected by a similar effort undertaken by the United States in 1989. Aside from the stunning beauty of these new images, Lubin said, they indicated that the universe is asymmetrical and lopsided, and not nearly as uniform, constant, and homogeneous as believed. These inconsistencies, he said, lend support to — but do not prove — the theory that the universe experienced a massively explosive expansion shortly after its inception, referred to by scientists as an “inflationary” period.
The radiation studied by the Planck project was initially released 370,000 years after the big bang. Tracking it, Lubin said, was a challenge for the hundreds of scientists involved with the project because they had to filter out intrusive, more recent radiation from other galaxies. That effort, he said, has produced insights of much greater interest than the age of the universe. “Do you really care if the universe is 13.7 billion years old or 13.8 billion years old?” he asked. “It’s a nice headline, but no, you don’t.”