But the new map raises questions: some features that don’t quite fit with the current understanding about the age, contents and fundamental characteristics of the universe, based on a simple model developed by scientists. For example, the model predicts the afterglow should look roughly the same everywhere. But the pattern is asymmetrical on two halves of the sky.
There is also an unexplained cold spot, larger than expected, that covers a patch in the southern sky.
“Imagine investigating the foundations of a house and finding that parts of them are weak,” said Francois Bouchet of the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris. “You might not know whether the weaknesses will eventually topple the house, but you’d probably start looking for ways to reinforce it pretty quickly all the same.”
The findings also test theories describing inflation, the dramatic expansion of the universe that took place immediately after its birth. In less than a blink of an eye, the universe blew up by 100 trillion trillion times in size, scientists said. The new map, by showing that matter seems to be distributed randomly, suggests that random processes were at play in the very early universe.
Scientists said it was difficult to overstate the importance of the data. An early version of this map made by other satellites won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for two Americans. The background radiation was discovered accidentally in 1964 by a pair of American radio astronomers.
Scientists say the Planck space mission is cosmology’s equivalent of the human genome project.
“Just as DNA determines many individual characteristics, the map from the space probe shows the seeds from which our current universe grew,” said Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. Cosmologists have a long road ahead, he said, to understand the detailed physical processes by which the patterns of light gave rise to stars, galaxies and planets.The Planck telescope, named for the German physicist Max Planck, the originator of quantum physics, was launched in 2009 and has been scanning the skies since, mapping the cosmic microwave background.
This radiation gives scientists a snapshot of the universe 370,000 years after the Big Bang.