Animation showing how the structure of the universe evolved from WMAP’s “baby picture” of the Big Bang. Matter clumps under the force of gravity, then the first stars ignite, and finally the structures of galaxies form. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team /WMAP Science Team (5 Mb QuickTime file)
NASA today released the best “baby picture” of the Universe ever taken, containing such stunning detail that it may be one of the most important scientific results of recent years.
The new cosmic portrait — capturing the afterglow of the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background — was taken by scientists using NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) during a sweeping 12-month observation of the entire sky.
“We’ve captured the infant Universe in sharp focus, and from this portrait we can now describe the Universe with unprecedented accuracy,” said Dr. Charles L. Bennett of the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt Md., and the WMAP Principal Investigator. “The data are solid, a real gold mine.”
One of the biggest surprises revealed in the data is that the first generation of stars to shine in the Universe ignited only 200 million years after the Big Bang, much earlier than many scientists had expected.
In addition, the new portrait precisely pegs the age of the Universe at 13.7 billion years old, with a remarkably small 1 percent margin of error.