- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) — NASA on Tuesday unveiled the most detailed picture yet of the universe in its infancy.

In the aftermath of the shuttle Columbia tragedy Feb. 1, the new map, created by an unmanned, relatively small project, marks a success for the agency.

A million miles from Earth, a satellite has been capturing light that has taken 13 billion years to reach the orbiting probe. The result — a snapshot of the universe when it was a mere 380,000 years old.

An elliptical collage of mostly blue and green, speckled with yellow clumps and a few red splotches, was presented Tuesday at a briefing at NASA headquarters.

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, named in honor of the late David T. Wilkinson, whose work contributed to the mission, has brought into sharp focus a previously blurry picture of the entire universe.

"WMAP has returned a gold mine of new results," said Charles Bennett, principal investigator for WMAP at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

WMAP reaches back in time to give a glimpse of where the first galaxies might have formed and when the first stars ignited, and it has given insight into a unified cosmic theory that reveals the age of the universe.

The reds and blues of the map show where matter started to clump. The yellows and reds are warmer regions. The blues and greens are cooler by only millionths of a degree.

"These tiny temp differences across the sky correspond to the regions of the early universe where the matter was just beginning to come together to form the beautiful structures of the galaxy," Bennett said.

From the new information from WMAP, scientists also have determined the first stars lit up 200 million years after the big bang, earlier than previously thought. The big bang is thought to be the time when the tiny universe started its expansion into what it is today.

In addition, scientists now can respond to the long unanswered question about whether the universe is expanding or collapsing in on itself.

"We've also determined from this unified picture the ultimate fate of the universe, which is that the universe will expand forever," Bennett said. "It will not turn back on itself and collapse in a great crunch."

As for the age of the universe, NASA scientists have finally pegged wandering estimations to 13.7 billion years old with a 1 percent margin of error.

WMAP, a result of collaborative work by NASA and Princeton University, did not shed much light on the nature of dark energy or dark matter. Cold dark matter is a type of matter that does not interact with light and dark energy is a repulsive force that increases the rate of expansion of the universe, according to NASA.

Bennett did comment, however, that Einstein's cosmological constant might be a good candidate to explain the invisible dark energy.

"I think the most revolutionary new result is that there are no revolutionary results," said John Bahcall, professor of natural sciences at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.

Results from WMAP confirm many measurements and estimates already made using information from the Hubble telescope and other instruments, Bahcall noted.

"WMAP agrees with many different ways of measuring astronomical phenomenon," Bahcall said. "We have to learn how to understand this unattractive universe because we have no other choice."

"This very implausible, strange universe … has been confirmed by WMAP with exquisite detail," Bahcall added. "In fact, if we didn't know that the universe was the way it was, it would be very easy to prove that it couldn't be that way."

David Spergel, co-investigator for WMAP at Princeton University, said, "What this WMAP data represent is a transition in cosmology."

Scientists have now answered many questions that have driven space exploration, such as when did stars ignite and what is the composition of the universe, Spergel said. Many different data point to a single model.

"These pictures are worth more than a thousand words," Spergel noted. But many more questions remain unanswered.

WMAP was launched in June 2001 and will continue to observe the skies for at least three to four more years.

"We believe that the best way to honor the seven astronauts on the Columbia who dedicated their lives to the NASA science mission is to continue that science mission to explore the universe," remarked Anne Kinney, NASA director of the astronomy and physics division.

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