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History Flashback
This retrospective looks to the daring inaugural flight of space shuttle Endeavour in May 1992 as three spacewalking astronauts rescued the wayward Intelsat communications satellite.
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Rover looks into crater
The spectacular high-resolution, color panorama from the Mars rover Opportunity at the edge of Endurance Crater is presented with expert narration by Steve Squyres, the mission's lead scientist. (2min 08sec file)
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The Columbia Hills
Explore the Columbia Hills at Gusev Crater where Spirit is headed in this computer-generated movie using imagery from orbit. Expert narration by Amy Knudson, science team collaborator. (3min 11sec file)
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Thursday's Mars briefing
The Mars rover Opportunity's arrival at Endurance Crater and Spirit's trek to the Columbia Hills are topics in this news conference from May 6. (42min 12sec file)
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Tale of Soyuz ride
Expedition 8 commander Mike Foale describes what it is like to land in a Soyuz capsule and reflects on his half-year mission aboard the International Space Station in this post-flight interview. (23min 37sec file)
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Chandra opens new line of investigation on dark energy
Posted: May 18, 2004

Astronomers have detected and probed dark energy by applying a powerful, new method that uses images of galaxy clusters made by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. The results trace the transition of the expansion of the universe from a decelerating to an accelerating phase several billion years ago.

Chandra images of multimillion degree Celsius gas in galaxy clusters have provided astronomers with a powerful new method to probe the mass and energy content of the universe. A recent study of 26 clusters of galaxies confirms that the expansion of the universe stopped slowing down about 6 billion years ago, and began to accelerate. Credit: NASA/CXC/IoA/S.Allen et al.
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"Dark energy is perhaps the biggest mystery in physics," said study leader Steve Allen of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) University of Cambridge, England. "As such, it is extremely important to make an independent test of its existence and properties," he said.

Allen and his colleagues used Chandra to study 26 clusters of galaxies at distances between one and eight billion light years. These data span the time when the universe slowed from its original expansion, before speeding up again, because of the repulsive effect of dark energy.

"We're directly seeing the expansion of the universe is accelerating by measuring the distances to these galaxy clusters," said IoA scientist and study co-author Andy Fabian. "The new Chandra results suggest the dark energy density does not change quickly with time and may even be constant, consistent with the "cosmological constant" concept first introduced by Albert Einstein," he said.

If the dark energy is unchanging, the universe is expected to continue expanding forever, and more dramatic fates for the universe would be ruled out. These include the "Big Rip," where dark energy increases until galaxies, stars, planets and, finally, even atoms are torn apart, and the "Big Crunch," where the universe eventually collapses on itself.

Chandra's probe of dark energy uses X-ray observations to detect and study the hot gas in galaxy clusters. From these data, the ratio of the mass of the hot gas to the mass of the dark matter in a cluster can be determined. Since galaxy clusters are so large, the relative amounts of hot gas and dark matter should be the same for every cluster. Using this assumption, Allen and colleagues derive distances that show the expansion of the universe was first decelerating, and it began to accelerate about six billion years ago.

Chandra's observations agree with observations of distant supernovae, including those from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST), that first showed dark energy's effect on the acceleration of the universe. Chandra's results are completely independent of the supernova technique.

"Our Chandra method has nothing to do with other techniques, so they're definitely not comparing notes, so to speak," said Robert Schmidt of the University of Potsdam, Germany, another co-author of the study.

Better limits on the amount of dark energy, and how it varies with time, are obtained by combining the X-ray results with data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). It used observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation to discover evidence for dark energy in the very early universe. Using the combined data, Allen and his colleagues found dark energy makes up about 75 per cent of the universe, dark matter about 21 per cent, and ordinary matter about 4 per cent.

More detailed studies with Chandra, HST, WMAP and future X- ray missions like Constellation-X, should provide much more precise constraints on dark energy.

"Until we better understand cosmic acceleration and the nature of the dark energy, we cannot hope to understand the destiny of the universe," said Michael Turner, assistant director for mathematical and physics sciences, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Va.

The research team also included Harald Ebeling of the University of Hawaii and the late Leon van Speybroeck of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. These results appear in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomy Society.