Measuring Dark Energy Like a BOSS

When you start to think about the most massive and extreme ‘stuff’ in the universe, you inevitably go to Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  They exist as opposites, one with incredible gravity holding the universe together, and the other a mysterious vacuum energy tearing it apart.  Studying this cosmic tug of war gives astronomers a chance to determine the past and future of the entire universe. To study the immense scale of these two quantities, the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) program of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III (SDSS) constructed a 3D map of the sky, amounting to a volume...

Hunt for the Small and Slow

With the recent discovery of gravitational waves, we now have a target for probing the very early universe, close to the big bang.  This is because gravitational waves can travel across the universe unimpeded, meaning those created after the big bang are still bouncing around today.  It’s like the big bang was the ringing of a giant bell, and the ringing can still be heard.  But all of our Easter eggs are not in one basket.  There is another way to probe the very early universe, one we haven’t found yet, because it involves particles that are very tiny and...

Navigating the Cosmic Ocean

Beyond the atmosphere, past the stars we see, farther than the Milky Way, and continuing past Andromeda, we reach the real cosmic ocean.  So called because like an ocean on Earth, it is vast, homogeneous, and impossible to navigate by common sense alone.  In the cosmic ocean, an impossibly huge amount of space separates island galaxies, whose strong gravity binds them across incredible distances, dictating their course, and forming the largest and most massive structures in the universe: galaxy clusters. Because these immense structures are so vast and so distant, it requires the work of several telescopes to map out...

Questions Series: How do we know the size of the Universe?

A set of questions I get from kids and adults alike while doing my Astronomy in Action planetarium shows consists of the following: Does the Universe have an end? How big is the Universe? Where is the center of the Universe? What is the ‘Observable Universe?’ How is it different from just saying ‘the Universe?’ First of all, let me say that it is really hard to imagine the Universe as it is, even with a solid understanding of large-scale Physics.  This is because there is no analogy in our lives, no reference point in our everyday experience.  It’s very...