Self Care – Astronomy Picture(s and Video) of the Week: Quasars Help Find That Universe is Expanding Faster Than Originally Thought

(There are 5 images and a video here…)

This is a pretty awesome story…

Basically, 5 quasars were studied to figure out the expansion rate of the universe, and the results were… interesting:

When astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered nearly 100 years ago that the universe was uniformly expanding in all directions, the finding was a big surprise. Then, in the mid-1990s, another shocker occurred: astronomers found that the expansion rate was accelerating perhaps due to a repulsive property called “dark energy.” Now, the latest measurements of our runaway universe suggest that it is expanding faster than astronomers thought. The consequences could be very significant for our understanding of the shadowy contents of our unruly universe. It may mean that dark energy is shoving galaxies away from each other with even greater – or growing – strength. Or, the early cosmos may contain a new type of subatomic particle referred to as “dark radiation.” A third possibility is that “dark matter,” an invisible form of matter that makes up the bulk of our universe, possesses some weird, unexpected characteristics. Finally, Einstein’s theory of gravity may be incomplete.

These unnerving scenarios are based on the research of a team led by Nobel Laureate Adam Riess, who began a quest in 2005 to measure the universe’s expansion rate to unprecedented accuracy with new, innovative observing techniques. The new measurement reduces the rate of expansion to an uncertainty of only 2.4 percent. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it does not agree with expansion measurements derived from probing the fireball relic radiation from the big bang. So it seems like something’s amiss – possibly sending cosmologists back to the drawing board.

So here are the 5 quasars. Click on them for the high-quality TIF image…

The first is quasar RX J1131-1231:

RX J1131-1231

RX J1131-1231

The next one is quasar HE0435-1223, located in the center of this image:




This third on is quasar WFI2033-4723:



The fourth one is quasar HE1104-1805:



And the fifth one is quasar B1608+656:



These lensed images were the primary ones used to calculate the new constant. Here’s a link to a PDF of the scientific article. I’ll quote the abstract here:

We use the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to reduce the uncertainty in the local value of the Hubble constant from 3.3% to 2.4%. The bulk of this improvement comes from new, near-infrared observations of Cepheid variables in 11 host galaxies of recent type Ia supernovae (SNe Ia), more than doubling the sample of reliable SNe Ia having a Cepheid-calibrated distance to a total of 19; these in turn leverage the magnitude-redshift relation based on 300 SNe Ia at z < 0.15. All 19 hosts as well as the megamaser system NGC 4258 have been observed with WFC3 in the optical and near-infrared, thus nullifying cross-instrument zeropoint errors in the relative distance estimates from Cepheids. Other noteworthy improvements include a 33% reduction in the systematic uncertainty in the maser distance to NGC 4258, a larger sample of Cepheids in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a more robust distance to the LMC based on late-type detached eclipsing binaries (DEBs), HST observations of Cepheids in M31, and new HST-based trigonometric parallaxes for Milky Way (MW) Cepheids.

It raises a fascinating conundrum, however

This refined calibration presents a puzzle, however, because it does not quite match the expansion rate predicted for the universe from its trajectory seen shortly after the big bang. Measurements of the afterglow from the big bang by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite mission yield predictions for the Hubble constant that are 5 percent and 9 percent smaller, respectively.

“We know so little about the dark parts of the universe, it’s important to measure how they push and pull on space over cosmic history,” said Lucas Macri of Texas A&M University in College Station, a key collaborator on the study.

Added Riess: “If we know the initial amounts of stuff in the universe, such as dark energy and dark matter, and we have the physics correct, then you can go from a measurement at the time shortly after the big bang and use that understanding to predict how fast the universe should be expanding today. However, if this discrepancy holds up, it appears we may not have the right understanding, and it changes how big the Hubble constant should be today.”

Comparing the universe’s expansion rate with WMAP, Planck, and the Hubble Space Telescope is like building a bridge, Riess explained. On the distant shore are the cosmic microwave background observations of the early universe. On the nearby shore are the measurements made by Riess’ team using Hubble.

“You start at two ends, and you expect to meet in the middle if all of your drawings are right and your measurements are right,” Riess said. “But now the ends are not quite meeting in the middle and we want to know why.”

I’ll end this post with a video from giving a short breakdown of all this…


  1. StevoR says

    Fascinating stuff and marvellous images. Cheers.


    ““Quasars are so luminous that if one was in action in a local group galaxy its brilliance would rival that of the Sun.”
    -- P.284, Timothy Ferris, ‘Seeing in the Dark’, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

  2. says

    I know this is stupid but I’m going to share it anyway… I was looking at the images and thinking “wow, those are pretty grainy and blurry.” Then it kicked in that we’re looking at the most extreme possible contrast ratio in photography, and the focus sharpness is insanely good for something 6 billion light-years away. Sign me spoiled by 3D renderings!

  3. fulcrumx says

    I wonder if there may be attractors at the edges of the known universe or beyond that are undescribed and pulling the universe apart. Or, put another way, outside our universe everything else sucks and is getting suckier as time goes by.

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