For a long time, there were two main theories related to how our universe would end. These were the Big Freeze and the Big Crunch. In short, the Big Crunch claimed that the universe would eventually stop expanding and collapse in on itself. This collapse would result in…well…a big crunch (for lack of a better term).

Think “the Big Bang”, except just the opposite. That’s essentially what the Big Crunch is.

Dark energy’s effect on our universe image credit: NASA

On the other hand, the Big Freeze claimed that the universe would continue expanding forever, until the cosmos becomes a frozen wasteland. This theory asserts that stars will get farther and farther apart, burn out, and (since there are no more stars being born) the universe will grow entirely cold and eternally black.

Now, we know that the expansion of the universe is not slowing. In fact, expansion is increasing. Edwin Hubble discovered that, the farther an object is away from us, the faster it is receding from us.

In simplest terms, this means that the universe is indeed expanding, and this (in turn) means that the universe will likely end as a frozen and static wasteland. However, this can all change if there is a reversal of dark energy’s current expansion effect.

Sound confusing? To clear things up, let’s take a closer look at what dark energy is.

How We Discovered That The Universe Is Expanding:

The accelerating expansion of the universe was discovered when astronomers were doing research on type 1a supernova events. These stellar explosions play a pivotal role in discerning the distance between two celestial objects. Because all type 1a supernova explosions are remarkably similar in brightness, if we know how bright a star should be, we can compare the apparent luminosity with the intrinsic luminosity, and we get a reliable figure for how far any given object is from us. To get a better idea of how these work, think about headlights. For the most part, car headlights all have the same luminosity. So if one car’s headlights are only 1/4 as bright as another car’s, then one car is twice as far away as the other.

Incidentally, along with helping us make these key determinations about the locations of objects in the universe, these supernova explosions also gave us a sneak preview of one of the strangest observations ever made about the universe. To measure the approximate distance of an object, like a star, and how that distance has changed, astronomers analyze the spectrum of light emitted. Scientists were able to tell that the universe is increasing in expansion because, as the light waves make the incredibly long journey to Earth—billions of light-years away—the universe continues to expand. And as it expands, it stretches the light waves through a process called “redshifting” (the “red” is because the longest wavelength for light is in the red portion of the electromagnetic spectrum). The more redshifted this light is, the faster the expansion is going.

Many years of painstaking observations (made by many different astronomers) have confirmed that this expansion is still ongoing and increasing because (as previously mentioned) the farther away an object is, the more redshifted it is, and (thus) the faster it is moving away from us.

Type 1a supernova depicted here at the lower left hand corner. Image credit: High-Z Supernova Search Team, HST, NASA

How Do We Know That Dark Energy Is Real?

The existence of dark energy is required, in some form or another, to reconcile the measured geometry of space with the total amount of matter in the universe. This is because of the largely successful Planck satellite and Wilkenson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) observations. The satellite’s observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) indicate that the universe is geometrically flat, or pretty close to it.

All of the matter that we believe exists (based on scientific data and inferences) combines to make up just about 30% of the total critical density of the observed universe. If it were geometrically flat, like the distribution suggests from the CMB, critical density of energy and matter should equal 100%. WMAP’s seven year sky survey, and the more sophisticated Planck Satellite 2 year survey, both are very strong evidence of a flat universe. Current measurements from Planck put baryonic matter (atoms) at about 4%, dark matter at 23%, and dark energy making up the remainder at 73%.

Pie chart showing the distribution of matter and energy in the universe – Image courtesy of NASA

What’s more, an experiment called Wiggle Z galaxy sky survey in 2011 further supported the dark energy hypothesis by its observations of large scale structures of the universe (such as galaxies, quasars, galaxy clusters, etc). After observing more than 200,000 galaxies (by looking at their redshift and measuring the baryonic acoustic oscillations), the survey quantitatively put the age of when the universe started increasing its acceleration at a timeline of 7 billion years. After this time in the universe, the expansion started to speed up.

How Does Dark Energy Work?

According to Occam’s razor (which proposes that the hypothesis with the fewest amount of assumptions is the correct one), the scientific community has favored Einstein’s cosmological constant. Or in other words, the vacuum energy density of empty space, imbued with the same negative pressure value everywhere, eventually adds up with itself to speed up and suffuse the universe with more empty space, accelerating the entire process. This would kind of be similar to the energy pressure when talking about the “Casimir effect,” which is caused by virtual particles in so-called “empty space”, which is actually full of virtual particles coming in and out of existence.

The Problem With Dark Energy:

Called “the worst prediction in all of physics,” cosmologists predict that this value for the cosmological constant should be 10^ -120 Planck units. According to dark energy equation, the parameter value for w (for pressure and density) must equal -1. But according to the latest findings from Pan-STARRS (short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System), this value is in fact -1.186. Pan-STARRS derived this value from combining the data it obtained with the observational data from Planck satellite (which measured these very specific type 1a supernovas, 150 of them between 2009 and 2011, to be exact).

“If w has this value, it means that the simplest model to explain dark energy is not true,” says Armin Rest of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. Armin Rest is the lead author of the Pan-STARRS team reporting these results to the astrophysics Web site arXiv (actual link to the paper) on October 22, 2013.

The Significance:

What exactly does the discrepancy in the value in the cosmological constant mean for our understanding of dark energy? At first glace, the community can dismiss these results as experimental uncertainty errors. It is a well accepted idea that telescope calibration, supernova physics, and galactic properties are large sources of uncertainties. This can throw off the cosmological constant value. Several astronomers have immediately spoken up, denying the validity of the results. Julien Guy of University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris say the Pan-STARRS researchers may have underestimated their systematic error by ignoring a source of uncertainty from supernova light-curve models. They have been in contact with the team, who are looking into that very issue, and others are combing over the meticulous work on the Pan-STARRS team to see if they can find any holes in the study.

Despite this, these results were very thorough and made by an experienced team, and work is already on its way to rule out any uncertainties. Not only that, but this is third sky survey to now produce experimental results that have dependencies for the pressure and density value of w being equal to 1, and it is starting to draw attention from cosmologists everywhere. In the next years, this result will be definitive, or it will be ruled out and disappear, with the cosmological constant continue being supported.

Well, if the cosmological constant model is wrong, we have to look at alternatives. That is the beauty of science, it does not care what we wish to be true: if something disagrees with observations, it’s wrong. Plain and simple.

This article was written by Tyson McVicar. Addittional contributions by Jolene Creighton.  For information on dark energy, such as baryonic acoustic oscillations and measurements pertaining to type 1a supernova, check out the Dark energy survey homepage here.

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