Science & Technology

The Universe's Baby Picture Could Help Us Predict Its Future

Look up at the sky and you see stars and galaxies and planets. But way in the background lurks an interesting form of radiation known as the Cosmic Microwave Background. That's the universe's baby picture, and when we study that picture, we don't only see its past — we also see its future.

What's Behind the Baby Face?

Next time you pull out your baby pictures, take a look at the details: what you looked like, who you were with, what you were doing. Often, we can "see" a bit of ourselves today by looking at what we used to be long ago. Our parents, friends, and activities all shaped us into the person we became.

This concept not only works for people, but it's also a useful analogy for science. Even our 13.8-billion-year-old universe was a baby in a time long, long ago – just after the universe was formed in an event known as the Big Bang. Shortly after birth, the universe was so hot and so dense that not even light could penetrate the tiny cocoon. Then space expanded rapidly, allowing light to shine through and molecules to come together. The first stars and galaxies turned on, and just after them came the first planets.

Funny enough, we can still see evidence of all that activity by using microwaves. Light is in a spectrum; we can see some of it with our eyes, but there are other forms of light, like X-rays and microwaves, that we can't see except with telescopes or other scientific instruments. Microwaves have extremely long wavelengths, and by using them, we can peer all the way back to the universe's first few thousand years. Scientists call this "baby picture" the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB.

Why Look at The Universe's Baby Picture?

Later this month, NASA will send a balloon with a science experiment — known as the Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer (PIPER) — to the edge of our atmosphere. There, PIPER will take more baby pictures of the universe. But why do we care in the first place? What's the use of looking at the radiation of the universe from so long ago, at a time long before the Earth formed? What's the point?

Well, for one thing, it will help us understand the universe's ultimate fate. Maybe we're going to keep expanding forever, or maybe we're going to collapse into a huge crunch. We can best understand this by mapping what the universe is made of. A past mission called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) helped scientists come up with some estimates. It turns out that 5 percent of the matter in the universe is normal matter, the kind that telescopes can see. The rest (95 percent) is made up of dark energy and dark matter that telescopes can't sense except through their effects on normal matter, such as the way they bend light.

Dark energy and dark matter are exotic and we know little about them, but they're still super important. They make up most of the mass of the universe. They alter the paths of light and of other objects. And by studying dark matter and dark energy, we can understand how fast the universe is expanding and whether the universe will expand forever, which most scientists think is likely.

There's a lot more you can see peering at the CMB, and NASA has a whole Tumblr page explaining more about our universe's history and what the PIPER mission will accomplish. So next time you look up at the sky, remember — our universe had a pretty baby face, and we're only just getting a clear picture of it.

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For more on our search to understand the universe, check out "The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality" by Richard Panek to learn more about the search for dark matter. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell September 18, 2018

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