Is the Universe older than expected?
EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: July 10, 2002
An analysis of 13.5 thousand million-year-old X-rays, captured by ESA's XMM-Newton satellite, has shown that either the Universe may be older than astronomers had thought or that mysterious, undiscovered 'iron factories' litter the early Universe.
APM 8279+5255 is 13.5 thousand million light years away. Scientists know this because they have estimated a property of its light known as the red shift, which is caused by the expansion of the Universe stretching the wavelengths of light emitted by the celestial object. XMM-Newton's data showed that iron was three times more abundant in the quasar than in our Solar System.
Since iron is released by exploding stars, according to precise physical phenomena, and scientists think it builds up across the Universe gradually with time. The Solar System formed just 5 thousand million years ago, so it should contain more iron than the quasar, which formed over 13.5 thousand million years ago. The fact that the quasar contains three times more iron than the Sun is therefore a major puzzle.
One possible explanation is that something is wrong with the way astronomers measure the age of objects in the Universe. The almost-holy red shift-distance-age conversion would therefore be wrong. Fred Jansen, ESA's project scientist for XMM-Newton, explains that this would mean rewriting the textbooks. "If you study the evolution of the Universe, one of the basic rules is that we can tie redshift to age. One distinct possibility to explain these observations is that, at the redshift we are looking at, the Universe is older than we think."
If such mysterious objects exist, perhaps XEUS (a next-generation X-ray satellite currently under study by ESA for launch sometime in the next decade) will discover them, because it will have the ability to see the very first galaxies.
In the shorter term, ESA is launching INTEGRAL, a gamma-ray-detecting satellite, in October 2002. It will observe exploding stars to study the formation of chemical elements and may explain the anomalous iron observations.
The paper containing these results is published on 10 July 2002, in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 573, L77. The authors were G. Hasinger and S. Komossa at the Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik and N. Schartel at the European Space Agency.
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