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NASA announced Thursday that its Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has calibrated more than 40 space and time “milepost markers”.
Mile markers help scientists measure the rate of expansion of the universe, and astronomers have found – using data from the HST and other telescopes – a discrepancy between the rate of expansion as measured in the local universe compared to independent observations after the big bang.
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The cause of the discrepancy remains unknown, but NASA said the HST data supports the new physics.
The rate of expansion of the universe is called the “Hubble constant”, after Edwin Hubble.
He was the first to calculate the constant from his measurements of stars in 1929, and it can be used to predict how fast an astronomical object at a known distance is moving away from Earth.
However, the true value of the Hubble constant remains up for debate, according to the University of Chicago, Hubble’s alma mater.
Cepheids, or stars that periodically brighten and darken, have long been the gold standard of cosmic kilometer markers. For greater distances, astronomers use explosive stars called type Ia supernovae.
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In a new paper, a nationwide science collaboration called SH0ES (Supernova, H0, for Dark Energy Equation of State) measured 42 of the supernova markers with Hubble.
“The SH0ES project was designed to put the universe on hold by matching the accuracy of the Hubble constant inferred from the study of cosmic microwave background radiation remaining from the dawn of the universe,” said wrote NASA in a statement.
The project’s results are more than double the previous sample of cosmic distance markers.
The agency also explained that the rate of expansion of the universe should be slower than what Hubble actually sees, with a lower value for the Hubble constant calculated using the standard cosmological model of the universe and measurements from the European Space Agency’s Planck mission than the SH0ES team estimate.
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Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, who directs SH0ES, said that – given the large size of the Hubble sample of mile markers – there is no there’s only a one in a million chance that astronomers are bad.
NASA’s new Webb Space Telescope will extend the HST’s work by showing mile markers at a greater distance.