Dark energy is so bizarre many astronomers and astrophysicists have doubted it exists. But now startling new measurements of the inflation rate of the universe may support the existence of the mysterious energy after all.
The energy is believed to be pulling the entire universe apart and is the driving force of entropy that will eventually replace order with chaos and then…nothing.
NASA defines dark energy as "a new kind of dynamical energy fluid or field, something that fills all of space but something whose effect on the expansion of the Universe is the opposite of that of matter and normal energy." Some astrophysicists have named the effect "quintessence," the fifth element Greek philosophers believed exists.
The U.S. space agency qualifies their statement about dark energy by adding another possibility: Albert Einstein's theory of gravity is wrong.
Adam Riess and a team of colleagues from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) in Baltimore have recalculated the rate of the universe's expansion. They've vastly narrowed the margin of error on the measurement reducing it by almost a third.
To accomplish the impressive feat, the STSI team employed a special type of newly designed camera designed installed on the Hubble space telescope during 2009. The instrument is capable of capturing and measuring the luminosity of type 1a supernovas. Those stars have been found to always emit a uniform amount of light that is predictable. By using those supernovae as the benchmark, they were able to compare the light of other stars to more accurately judge relative distances throughout the cosmos.
In an interview with Space.com about the camera, Reiss said, "Without the improvement in efficiency capability from the new camera, it just wouldn’t have been feasible. It's just a different generation of technology than the previous camera."
Their breakthrough measurements confirm the already growing belief that the universe is not just expanding, but the speed of inflation is steadily increasing.
Their study, "Determining the Motion of the Local Group Using SN Ia Light Curve Shapes" has been published in the April 1, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
To account for the increasing inflation of the universe and the amazing acceleration of the process, astronomers hypothesized that a "dark energy" would cause such an effect. The problem, however, is no astronomer has been able to detect it.
Because no one has been able to point to any evidence of dark energy—let alone prove that it exists-some astrophysicists and astronomers have rejected the idea and proposed alternate theories.
"Theorists have come up with very creative ways to get out of dark energy," Riess told Space.com, "which would be great because we don't understand dark energy very well and it would be nice to find a way that the universe was simpler."
Einstein's proposal of a "cosmological constant" states that space is not empty and the very nature of space itself is energetic and produces energy as it expands. Einstein believed it's possible that more space can be created.
NASA, in discussing the Einstein theory of gravity points out that it makes a second prediction: "'empty space' can possess its own energy. Because this energy is a property of space itself, it would not be diluted as space expands. As more space comes into existence, more of this energy-of-space would appear. As a result, this form of energy would cause the Universe to expand faster and faster."
The idea of the bizarre properties of dark energy sprang into being because the mathematics to support Einstein's contention have never worked out. leading some theorists to suspect that Einstein's theory of gravity is wrong.
Some scientists have postulated that our region of the universe is contained within a gigantic space bubble and the laws of the universe are different inside the bubble than outside of it.
Most reject that idea, including Riess.
"I know that a lot of people have not taken that theory very seriously because of a major problem with it," he told Space.com. "We tend to believe theories where we don’t live in any special place in the universe. That would be very strange—why should we be in a special place?"
Could dark energy be used to create a Faster-than-light (FTL) spaceship?
Assuming that dark energy does exist Dr. Gerald Cleaver, associate professor of physics at Baylor University, and Richard Obousy, a Baylor graduate student have suggested altering it to power a spacecraft between the stars.
They believe that manipulating the extra spatial dimensions of string theory around a space vessel with an very large amounts of energy, a "bubble" would be created that would accelerate the spacecraft FTL—a sort of Star Trek warp drive.
Accomplishing such a thing would not be easy. To bring the bubble into existence requires manipulating the 10th spatial dimension. Doing so would, in their hypothesis at least, radically alter the dark energy in three large spatial dimensions: height, width and length.
Commenting on Obousy's and his idea, Cleaver stated that positive dark energy is currently responsible for speeding up the expansion rate of our universe as time moves forward.
For the time being, Riess is not concerning himself with FTL ships and space exploration. He'd be satisfied with just being able to prove once and for all that dark energy really does exist.
"Determining the Motion of the Local Group Using SN Ia Light Curve Shapes," Adam G. Riess, William H. Press, Robert P. Kirshner. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"Baryogenesis, Neutrino Masses, and Dynamical Dark Energy," Marc-Thomas Eisele, Technische Universit¨at München - Physik-Department
"A relativistic time variation of matter/space fits both local and cosmic data," Alfredo Gouveia Oliveira, Rodrigo de Abreu
"cosmic dark matter at the time with or dark energy"
"Time reversal and negative energies in general relativity," Jose M. Ripalda.
"Spherical collapse model in dark energy cosmologies," F. Pace, J.-C. Waizmann, M. Bartelmann
"Fundamental Dark Mass, Dark Energy Time Relation in a Friedman Dust Universe and in a Newtonian Universe with Einstein’s Lambda," James G. Gilson, School of Mathematical Sciences Queen Mary University of London.
"Bizarre Dark Energy Theory Gets Boost From New Measurements," Clara Moskowitz, Space.com