Einstein introduced the Cosmological Constant into his formulation of General Relativity to eliminate the uniform expansion or contraction of the universe that seemed to be inevitable without it. After Hubble’s work revealed an expanding universe, Einstein called the constant his “greatest mistake.”
But in recent years, the discovery of an accelerated expansion of the universe led scientists to postulate the existence of “dark energy.” One candidate for that dark energy is–you guessed it–the Cosmological Constant.
(I discuss this as an open question in my book Physics: Decade by Decade.)
New research now supports that notion, though the evidence is far from conclusive.
The following NASA news release describes the latest findings.
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.
Dec. 16, 2008 RELEASE : 08-329
Dark Energy Found Stifling Growth in the Universe
WASHINGTON — For the first time, astronomers have clearly seen the
effects of “dark energy” on the most massive collapsed objects in the
universe using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. By tracking how
dark energy has stifled the growth of galaxy clusters and combining
this with previous studies, scientists have obtained the best clues
yet about what dark energy is and what the destiny of the universe could
This work, which took years to complete, is separate from other
methods of dark energy research such as supernovas. These new X-ray
results provide a crucial independent test of dark energy, long sought
by scientists, which depends on how gravity competes with accelerated
expansion in the growth of cosmic structures. Techniques based on
distance measurements, such as supernova work, do not have this
Scientists think dark energy is a form of repulsive gravity that now
dominates the universe, although they have no clear picture of what it
actually is. Understanding the nature of dark energy is one of the
biggest problems in science. Possibilities include the cosmological
constant, which is equivalent to the energy of empty space. Other
possibilities include a modification in general relativity on the
largest scales, or a more general physical field.
To help decide between these options, a new way of looking at dark
energy is required. It is accomplished by observing how cosmic
acceleration affects the growth of galaxy clusters over time.
“This result could be described as ‘arrested development of the
universe’,” said Alexey Vikhlinin of the Smithsonian Astrophysical
Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., who led the research. “Whatever is
forcing the expansion of the universe to speed up is also forcing its
development to slow down.”
Vikhlinin and his colleagues used Chandra to observe the hot gas in
dozens of galaxy clusters, which are the largest collapsed objects in
the universe. Some of these clusters are relatively close and others
are more than halfway across the universe.
The results show the increase in mass of the galaxy clusters over time
aligns with a universe dominated by dark energy. It is more difficult
for objects like galaxy clusters to grow when space is stretched, as
caused by dark energy. Vikhlinin and his team see this effect clearly
in their data. The results are remarkably consistent with those from
the distance measurements, revealing general relativity applies, as
expected, on large scales.
“For years, scientists have wanted to start testing how gravity works
on large scales and now, we finally have,” said William Forman, a
co-author of the study from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
“This is a test that general relativity could have failed.”
When combined with other clues — supernovas, the study of the cosmic
microwave background, and the distribution of galaxies — this new
X-ray result gives scientists the best insight to date on the
properties of dark energy.
The study strengthens the evidence that dark energy is the
cosmological constant. Although it is the leading candidate to explain
dark energy, theoretical work suggests it should be about 10 raised to
the power of 120 times larger than observed. Therefore, alternatives
to general relativity, such as theories involving hidden dimensions,
are being explored.
“Putting all of this data together gives us the strongest evidence yet
that dark energy is the cosmological constant, or in other words, that
‘nothing weighs something’,” said Vikhlinin. “A lot more testing is
needed, but so far Einstein’s theory is looking as good as ever.”
These results have consequences for predicting the ultimate fate of
the universe. If dark energy is explained by the cosmological
constant, the expansion of the universe will continue to accelerate,
and the Milky Way and its neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, never will
merge with the Virgo cluster. In that case, about a hundred billion
years from now, all other galaxies ultimately would disappear from the
Milky Way’s view and, eventually, the local superclusters of galaxies
also would disintegrate.
The work by Vikhlinin and his colleagues will be published in two
separate papers in the Feb. 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the
Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra’s science
and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.
Additional information and images are available at: