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How old is the Earth? Baby picture of our universe offers clues

SAN JOSE, Calif. - A supercomputer has identified the most ancient light in the universe, assembling an image that reveals that the universe is older, and slower, than we thought.

The powerful Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory computer, housed in a former Wells Fargo Bank vault near the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, Calif., analyzed data sent by NASA from Europe's Planck space telescope.

It compiled a portrait of an infant cosmos that was hot, small and crowded - and traced our creation back 13.8 billion years, about 100 million years older than previous estimates. Its analysis also revealed a rate of expansion that is slower than seen from other space telescopes, forcing some theoretical re-thinking.

"This is the baby picture of our universe," said physicist Julian Borrill of the Laboratory's Computational Cosmology Center, who worked on the analysis, which was announced at a news conference Thursday in Paris.

"It's as far back as we can look," he said.

To the untrained eye, the snapshot looks like 1880s Pointillism rather than 21st century astrophysics - a maelstrom of orange and blue dots, each representing tiny fluctuations in temperature. The ancient light isn't actually visible to the eye. Instead, the Planck telescope has detected cosmic microwaves that date to just after the Big Bang, and translated them into a picture we can comprehend.

And it portrays a tidy version of the original mess. When Borrill first looks at the computer screen, he sees jagged peaks and valleys of massive raw data, beamed back from thermometers aboard European Space Agency satellites to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

But what it represents is profound: a snapshot of the dawn of time, imprinted in the sky shortly after that crucible moment called the Big Bang - when nothing suddenly turned into everything.

The new calculations reveal that the universe has about 3 percent more girth than assumed, and it is expanding about 3 percent more slowly. It holds slightly less dark energy, and more dark matter.

This new information deepens our understanding of our past and future by building on work that has already won three different Nobel prizes.

The snapshot reveals the young universe was a scorching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And it was crammed into a space about 1,000 times smaller than our current universe.

Thursday's image represents a point in time 380,000 years after the cosmic conception, when the universe exploded and expanded faster than the speed of light.

That is before galaxies and stars. Before solar systems and suns. And long, long before us.

It was even before atoms. What the Planck telescope sees are mostly photons, those elemental particles, not detectable light. The image was snapped at the frontier of the observable universe - "at the edge of the fog," said Borrill, when tremendous amounts of energy were still banging around.

The picture's colorful dots, or temperature fluctuations, represent the varying densities of the universe in those expansive years immediately post-Big Bang. In the beginning, these fluctuations were tiny. But now there is a rich variety of cosmic structure, from planets to galaxy clusters.

"What a wonderful triumph of the mathematical approach to describing nature. The precision is breathtaking," Columbia University physicist Brian Greene said in an email to The Associated Press.

Physicist Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the project, told AP that the findings were "a big pat on the back for our understanding of the universe."

To make the most precise measurement yet of the remnant radiation from the Big Bang, the $900 million Planck satellite mission has been collecting trillions of observations of the sky since the summer of 2009. Planck's 72 detectors gather 10,000 samples per second as they sweep over the sky.

The search for the ancient light is like carefully digging for fossils - sifting through instrument "noise" and foreground data through exquisitely precise analyses.

About 100 Planck data analysts from a dozen countries on three continents have converged at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at the Berkeley lab.

Computations were performed on the Cray XE6 "Hopper" supercomputer, named for computer science pioneer Grace Hopper.

The space telescope will keep transmitting data until late this year. Borrill and other scientists hope it will spin off yet more answers about old mysteries.

"We know we have a lot more data still to analyze," said Borrill. "This is just the beginning."

How old is the Earth? Baby picture of our universe offers clues 03/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 1:22pm]
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