Physicists say they have the smoking gun that shows the universe went through extremely rapid expansion in the moments after the Big Bang, growing from the size of a marble to a volume larger than all of observable space in less than a trillion-trillionth of a second.
The discovery announced yesterday — which involves an analysis of variations in the brightness of microwave radiation — is the first direct evidence to support the two-decade-old theory that the universe went through what is called inflation.
Researchers found the evidence for inflation by looking at a faint glow that permeates the universe.
That glow, known as the cosmic microwave background, was produced when the universe was about 300,000 years old — long after inflation had done its work.
But just as a fossil tells a paleontologist about long-extinct life, the pattern of light in the cosmic microwave background offers clues about what came before it. Of specific interest to physicists are subtle brightness variations that give images of the microwave background a lumpy appearance.
Physicists presented new measurements of those variations during a news conference at Princeton University. The measurements were made by a spaceborne instrument called the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe, or WMAP, launched by NASA in 2001.
Earlier studies of WMAP data have determined that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.
Without inflation, the brightness variations over small patches of the sky would be the same as those observed over larger areas of the heavens. But the researchers found considerable differences in the brightness variations.
"The data favours inflation," said Charles Bennett, a Johns Hopkins University physicist who announced the discovery. He was joined by two Princeton colleagues, Lyman Page and David Spergel, who also contributed to the research.
The physicists said small lumps in the microwave background began during inflation. Those lumps eventually coalesced into stars, galaxies and planets.
The measurements are to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.