The Age of the Universe
Since the beginning of man, we’ve been asking ourselves questions about the world around us. Over time, these questions have expanded further beyond our immediate surroundings and into the vast and endless voids of space.
As our understanding of the heavens deepen, we’ve become increasingly interested in knowing the age of the Universe.
So How Old is the Universe?
This is such a complex question and requires so much data, explanations, calculations, references, assumptions, technology, constants and much, much more – but for our purposes, we’ll keep things pretty simple and lightweight.
There are two recent spacecrafts which have helped us solve two different models, both have helped us understand the age of the universe. It’s comforting to know, both yield exceptionally similar answers to one another, further leading to the belief that we are close to the exact age of the Universe.
We believe the age of the Universe to be roughly 13.798 billion years old, with a variance of roughly +/- 37 million years.
To help define how we determine the age of the Universe, we contend that the “birth” of the Universe took place at the moment (actually, the instant) of the Big Bang. The Big Bang, which caused the explosion and expansion of the Universe; both of which are critical in helping to determine the age of the Universe.
Where Does this Super Old Date Come From?
Both of these spacecrafts were sent out and were able to use slightly different methods to collect data which assisted Scientists in determining how old the Universe is.
The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe:
The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was a joint effort between NASA and Princeton University. The WMAP was proposed to NASA back in 1995 and didn’t launch until June 30, 2001 with the mission of measuring the temperature differences on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation. More on this later.
Spoiler alert #1: The WMAP only had a 9 year mission. It was deactivated October 28, 2010 after 9 years, 1 month and 19 days in space collecting data to help Scientists make some of the most awesome discoveries in the last several decades of mankind.
A significant amount of the data that the WMAP collected assisted in the development of what is known as the Lambda-CDM model, which basically helps to prove the Big Bang theory by measuring and using dark energy and cold dark matter (the CDM, part of the name of this model) and outputs what it known as the cosmological constant, denoted as the Greek letter Λ (Lambda, also part of the model’s name).
All that to say, this machine kicks butt and assisted kick butt Scientists and Astronomers in figuring out how the Universe expanded and continues to expand after the Big Bang.
After the WMAP launched into space, floated around, captured some awesome data, did its thing a little more; it determined the age of the Universe to be roughly 13.772 billion years old, with a variance of roughly +/- 59 million years.
Here’s an artists’ rendition of how the WMAP measures the temperature differences of the CMB levels of radiation and takes that data and turns it into a pixelized sphere, which required technology that would blow your mind. Here’s the 3,145,728 pixels the WMAP turned into a timeline for the age of the Universe.
The WMAP was a definite upgrade over the two previous satellites which attempted to record variations in the CMD radiation levels; RELIKT-1 (1983) and Cosmic Background Explorer (1989).
The level of sensitivity, calibration and optical resolution improved over time as technology advances, later we’ll see how the Planck spacecraft took things to the next level, again.
Here is a comparison between the data collected on all three missions up to WMAP in 2001.
The Planck Spacecraft:
After WMAP, the NASA/Princeton spacecraft, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched their own Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation level detecting spacecraft on May 14, 2009.
Spoiler alert #2: the Planck Spacecraft had a shorter lifespan than the WMAP and spent 4 years, 5 months and 9 days collecting data for Scientists back home on Earth. It was sent into heliocentric orbit and will continue to transmit data back to Earth into the year 2016.
After measuring the CMB, Planck was able to determine the age of the Universe to be roughly 13.813 billion years old, with a variance of roughly +/- 58 million years.
The Planck Spacecraft had a series of various objectives including; hi-res imaging of the CMB, cataloging galaxy clusters, observe gravitational lensing, bright extra-galactic radio and infrared (dusty galaxy) sources.
It also observed the Milky Way, as well as our Galactic magnetic field. Lastly, it was to help study our own Solar System, planets, asteroids, comments and zodiacal light.
Planck’s technology was nothing to mess with. Its powerful spectrum, which enables its ability to observe the CMB, was much more powerful and had a higher level of resolution than the WMAP, 3 times greater, in fact.
Planck was able to observe the CMB in 9 different frequency bands, as compared to the 5 frequency bands the WMAP used to measure the CMB and help collect data to assist in determining the age of the Universe.
On July 5, 2010 Planck delivered its first full sky image, measuring the CMB at 100%. Here’s a picture comparing the results from the COBE, WMAP and the Planck missions. As technology advances, our data gets better and we know more and more.
Something else about the Planck Spacecraft that you’re going to find interesting. Planck has an on-board, internal cooling system which is used to keep the highly tuned and fragile instruments at specific temperatures. The Planck Spacecraft was kept as -459.49 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the coldest (unnatural) object in space – only second to the Boomerang Nebula, which is the coldest (natural) object in space.
After Planck finished collecting data and Scientists were able to run the numbers; their findings will blow your mind.
- The age of the Universe is closer to 13.8 billion years old
- The expansion of the Universe is slightly slower than previously thought
- The Universe is made up of 3 key ingredients:
- Normal matter: 4.9%
- Dark matter: 26.8%
- Dark energy: 68.3%
- The Universe isn’t perfectly round, it’s slightly lopsided
At the end of the day, our Universe poses more questions than answers and we’ve only just begun to solve them. Everyday gets us closer to knowing a little more about the world and Universe around us.
It’s safe to say, the Age of the Universe is 13.8 billion years old and it’s going to be around for a lot longer.